Taiwan: to war or not to war, is that the question?

Feb 2, 2021

Are we at risk of stumbling into a war with China over Taiwan – as happened in 1914 over a war with a rising Germany? 

An institutional mindset can carry a lot of baggage from which it is hard to escape. ‘Carry on’ is often a standard response regardless of changed circumstances.

Today we are facing a rising power in China and an elderly one in the US, which is nursing bruises from a succession of failed military campaigns.

A push from the former can elicit a reflexive response from the latter. What kind of response might the US make? Will it be considered and proportionate or will it be driven by instinct, largely an institutional instinct?

The notion of alliances still has currency although they are losing relevance. For Australia, strategic and foreign policies for more than a century have been burnt deeply into the fabric of an alliance system with no thought given to independent action or going it alone in a crisis.

Such ingrained influence comes from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) led by its executive director, Peter Jennings, and funded by the government and the US. ASPI was established to contribute an independent and informed view of Australia’s security interests.

It’s time to decommission ASPI

Right on cue comes an ASPI statement following China’s intimidatory manoeuvres around Taiwan, which both the People’s Republic of China (the mainland) and the Republic of China (now Taiwan) claim to be within the one China.

That statement asserts two points, inter alia:

  1. The latest military manoeuvres around Taiwan are, in fact, the emerging frontline of Australia’s defence.
  2. Whatever President Biden does about Taiwan he will expect Japan and Australia to be there. There is no exit strategy from our own region.

This is very 1950-ish thinking. The question is whether the government and its security apparatus remain conditioned by those influences.

The government purports to be playing ‘a straight bat’ in response to alleged Chinese provocations. Even so, it is entirely unclear whether we would be safe from being dragged into a US-initiated conflict with China. Such a conflict would be beyond our abilities to withstand; it would also severely compromise our ability to conduct a foreign policy that best serves our longer-term interests. The government could well take a lesson from the pragmatic policies of Australian conservative governments in the 1930s.

Lessons from our diplomacy in Asia in the 1930s

What is the issue with Taiwan?

China is not threatening Australia, directly or indirectly. Nor is China threatening a third country. Taiwan is an internal matter best settled by Chinese among themselves. In short China’s domestic affairs are none of our business. The most we can do is urge them to resolve their differences peacefully.

Second, as a major power China has every right to protect its borders – land, sea and air. The United States is very protective of its borders and doesn’t tolerate another major power’s naval patrols and military aircraft hovering in its regions.

Third, what could we do militarily that the US couldn’t do on its own? The disparity in military power between Australia and China is already enormous and growing. Participating in a blockade in the South China Sea would push us dangerously close to unavoidable conflict.

And what diplomatic solidarity would countries in our region show should we engage in a military conflict with China? Apart from Japan, Singapore might give a furtive nod. Indonesia, India, Vietnam? Not likely, yet these are the regional nations of greatest importance to us as we navigate our way as a respected multi-racial society through the next century. There may be no turning back.

Fourth, the Taiwan issue would seem to have implications for Japan given its unresolved territorial issues in the East China Sea (such as the Senkaku Islands) left over from the Pacific War of the 1940s. The international community should give full diplomatic support to Japan in its endeavours to resolve these territorial issues on the basis of international law. If China were to frustrate these endeavours sanctions would be in order.

But what if, through miscalculation or overreach, China’s issues with Taiwan and Japan became warlike? It is said that failure by either the US or Australia to support Taiwan militarily would fatally undermine US leadership in the region and everywhere else for that matter. Taiwan is not a touchstone in this regard but Japan could be. Why would the US go head over heels to participate yet again in a civil war? An attack on a prominent member of the UN is another matter, as would be an attack on Germany or France.

Taiwan and the CPR have got themselves into their predicament and have had decades to resolve it. Their obstinacy should not bring us all down. Taiwan is not a test of democracy prevailing over autocracy either. There are many other places in the world to test that.

A major war over Taiwan would threaten world peace that few would survive fully intact. Again, think 1914.

One engages in military conflict to achieve a specific objective with a clear idea of what success might look like. By what standard could a military conflict between Australia and China look good, leaving us and our cities unharmed?

It has been difficult enough to weigh the balance between suppressing Covid-19 and keeping the economy productive. In a conflict with nuclear weapons it could be all over in a flash with destruction all round. Pine Gap would be a target. As for our military locations and nearby cities… Would destruction be total?

Any decision to engage in conflict should be taken only with the consent of Parliament and on the basis of sound advice shared with the Parliament. Government is duty bound in such matters to take the people with it, with their consent through their representatives. Because government personnel come and go, often avoiding subsequent accountability for their actions, the only secure guarantee of democratic accountability is with Parliament – a fact that was lost to sight over past deployments.

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