Taiwan solution is diplomacy rather than nuclear hell

Jul 15, 2023
The flag of Taiwan. Creative puzzle hologram. Missing piece puzzle concept.

I have yet to meet an Australian voter willing to go to war over Taiwan. Further, I haven’t heard of any Australian military leader with a clear idea of Australia’s role in a showdown between China and the US.

Earlier this year, NASA’s survey satellite discovered an Earth-sized world within the habitable zone of a distant star. If it hosts life, its creatures may be listening to our conversations. They are likely amazed that earthlings seem to be sleepwalking towards their first war between nuclear powers.

At the heart of the conflict is the political system that prevails on an island of 23.5 million people because of sovereignty issues left over from two Sino-Japanese wars. These far-off observers might be even more curious if they knew about the availability of a tested formula that for 50 years kept peace in one part of the small blue planet.

I have yet to meet an Australian voter willing to go to war over Taiwan. Further, I haven’t heard of any Australian military leader with a clear idea of Australia’s role in a showdown between China and the US. On the contrary, I’m told their consensus is that our naval assets would be unprotected against ocean-hugging hypersonic missiles.

One former Defence Department official told me if we sent submarines, “we’d better make sure that our submariners had their wills made out”. I’m told one now-deceased former general was fond of saying about our role in the Taiwan Strait: “We’d last three minutes.”

Years ago, I enjoyed Paul Monk writing about how the Bible “consists of luminous fables, not of revealed truth”. He presented fresher arguments against Abrahamic religion than atheist provocateurs such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But when it comes to war and peace, he’ll pardon me if I say Henry Kissinger has the brawnier intellect. The loose war talk over Taiwan led the former US secretary of state to make a solemn warning back in May that we are facing great-power conflict like that which preceded World War I. He used the noun “catastrophe”.

Kissinger had negotiated the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which offers the diplomatic formula that preserved the peace and can go on preserving it until overtaken by any new political and economic reality 100 years off. The communique allows the world to “acknowledge” the Chinese claim that Taiwan is its province without “endorsing” the Chinese claim. And, quickly following, is the principle that “reunification” would not involve an act of war.

For its part, Taiwan steers away from a declaration of independence. Only 13 of the world’s nations see Taiwan as independent. But it has enjoyed self-government with a contestable political system and a prosperous economy. This strategic ambiguity has served us.

A Taiwan that resembles Hong Kong is not desirable. I said in my recent interview with Mark Bouris, it would be preferable to a nuclear war.

On what a war would look like, I’d trust over Monk the judgment of Admiral James Stavridis, head of NATO from 2009 to 2013. Stavridis also led two carrier strike groups and saw action in the Gulf. His novel, 2034, imagines a US-China war. He describes the loss of two American fleets because of China’s cyber and missile strength. After this shattering blow, a weak US president does what John F. Kennedy declined to do in the Cuban missile crisis: resort to the first use of nuclear weapons, specifically over the Chinese city of Zhanjiang, population seven million. The Chinese response destroys San Diego and Galveston.

Stavridis’s dystopia has been acknowledged as credible by two former US secretaries of defence, Robert Gates and James Mattis.

This author then does something no one else has attempted: a description of the new world order that follows the war. China and the US are catastrophically maimed by the hurtling of tactical nukes. Goodbye to any notion of a US-led world order. In a swirl of radioactive winds, leadership passes to a triumvirate of India, Russia and Iran.

Any hard-nosed assessment of our national interest would have us redouble – then redouble again – our commitment to guardrails and off-ramps to stop the descent into conflict. There are subtle suggestions that both the US and China have pulled back to earlier red lines, and with the support of the Taiwanese leadership. In that spirit, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April met the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, on American soil and not in Taipei. The Chinese response was comparatively subdued.

In this month’s Australian Foreign Affairs, Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute delicately etched how recent Canberra decisions had rendered Australian sites more likely nuclear targets. It includes having B52s fly out of RAAF Tindall near Darwin, assumedly with the mission of striking China’s nuclear infrastructure. It may include Submarine Rotational Force-West in the planned nuclear submarine base at HMAS Stirling, and Port Kembla on the east coast.

Roggeveen concludes that in a future crisis, Australia’s profile is going to be much higher in the eyes of Chinese military planners.

Writing in 2008, Monk said biblical stories should be confined to the museum “along with blood sacrifices – whether of lambs or sons of God”. But the blood sacrifice he seems ready for us to sustain in a great-power war would exceed anything imagined by the fabulists who gave us the testaments. Without any retreat from deterrence or our values, more spirited diplomacy in our interests, the region’s and Earth’s might be the order of the day.


First published in The Australian July 14, 2023 p. 11

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