Are we sleepwalking our way to war? Australia should be reminding China and the US that it’s vital to avoid conflict over Taiwan.
“Restraint.” This should be the one-word diplomatic mantra for Australia about Taiwan. It should be the opening and closing of every statement an Australian prime minister utters because a descent into war between the world’s superpowers over a neuralgic issue that diplomacy has constrained for 70 years — this is the last thing our battered and bruised planet wants.
And it should be the last thing Australia should appear to be talking up. The prospect of such a clash producing a nuclear exchange is spookily high. By installing American facilities on our continent we have made Australia a target. That’s reason enough to plant us in the peace camp.
Another reason is that, on China, America can always leave us stranded. Suddenly, the White House is talking a new relationship with Xi Jinping based on negotiations. All the more reason for us to work hard at diplomacy between the two superpowers.
We’re left a bit exposed because alone of America’s allies we have said we will join America if there’s a showdown, presumably within the first week. It’s almost as if in the corridors of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Defence department the hawks are humming the World War I recruiting song, “Australia Will Be There”.
This begs the question: is there any rigorous analysis by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on how Australia might help avert war, or whether our diplomats are entirely sidelined and relegated.
It’s not hard to draft an alternative diplomatic script that our Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton can cleave to. Begin by calling for restraint by all. Specifically condemn talk of the use of force to resolve the dispute. Invoke the role of the United Nations Security Council in maintaining peace and security. Praise the historic restraint from both sides that has seen diplomatic language used to avoid war over Taiwan in the crises of 1954-55, 1958 and 1995-96.
Back this with an energetic, behind closed-doors diplomacy to remind China and the United States of the guardrails and off-ramps that both sides need to use to avoid an accidental slide to catastrophe.
Canberra needs to commission a document for the national security committee of cabinet that scripts our leaders to advocate those guardrails and off-ramps. That is, to press Washington and Beijing on the practical measures that would avoid a descent into war.
Australian National University professor Brendan Taylor wrote in his book The Dangerous Decade, “Peace has been preserved through a deceptively simple arrangement known as the cross-strait status quo”. Taylor says this term encompasses a series of tacit commitments made by Beijing, Taipei and Washington to maintain stability across the Strait. For example, Taiwan will not issue a formal declaration of independence. Beijing will live with this reality of local rule as long as it can still talk of Taiwan as a province. The US persuades Taiwan away from any declaration of independence and maintains a strategic ambiguity about its response to any aggression.
This status quo is deliberately ambiguous. It involves accepting red lines in the behaviour of all sides.
Our defence minister talks about our involvement as a certainty but this glides over the reality that sending a frigate and a few surveillance aircraft would have not the remotest effect on any outcome — throwing “toothpicks at a mountain” in Paul Keating’s words. Yet, according to commentator Alan Dupont, Australia sending forces, even token ones, would probably invite China to target with missiles the northern defence infrastructure such as Darwin Port, Tindal RAAF base and the joint defence facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs.
In a recent ASPI publication, Dupont wrote, “It’s also conceivable that Beijing could threaten Australia with nuclear weapons. The aim would be to prevent, or disrupt, any effort by the US and Australia to intervene on the side of Taiwan”.
Up till now the whole thrust of our foreign policy has been to prevent such a conflict because of its threat to our prosperity and security. But now our defence minister appears to imply a new doctrine: a level of automaticity about Australia being in it.
A RAND study published in 2016 simulated a “severe” US-China conflict that would last up to a year. Both sides would suffer “very heavy” military losses. Neither would be able to establish decisive military advantage. Closing down all of China’s trade would plunge the world into depression. RAND said retaliatory Chinese cyber-attacks on the US could cost the US up to $US900 billion.
What do the hawks imagine victory over China would look like? Allies marching into Beijing and looting the Winter Palace as in 1900? Pulling down statues of Mao, an echo of Baghdad in 2003? US occupiers dodging roadside bombs while they occupy Shandong Province and its 100 million people? The Pentagon which designed the Iraq and Afghan triumphs has no idea. ASPI and other Australian hawks have no idea. But, Australia will be there.
The horror of such a war is enough to tilt us to reset our relationship with China without compromising any policy stance. We need it simply to give our leaders the opportunity to pursue nagging diplomacy with Beijing and Washington — and Tokyo too — with Australia not the passive prophet of inevitable conflict but the middle-power talking the vital need to avoid it.
Or are we sleepwalking our way to a war? Australia must be there; Australia is always there because being a creative middle-power, peace-building diplomat is too hard. And being a rusted-on, all-weather ally comes too easy.
This article was first published by The Sydney Morning Herald and is reproduced with permission.