The role of strategic ambiguity in Australia’s China Policy

May 10, 2021

For half a century, strategic ambiguity about the application of ANZUS to Taiwan served Australia well. Is it time to apply this policy more broadly?

History, little understood, shows that for 55 years a policy of strategic ambiguity about the application of ANZUS (the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) to Taiwan, a flashpoint in Asia, served Australia well. Returning to that policy could lessen the risks of embroilment in any Sino-American war in East Asia and enhance Australia’s middle-power options.

Strategic ambiguity for 55 years

At the time of its creation, the defining characteristic of the area covered by the ANZUS security treaty was elasticity. Vagueness suited all. Australia thus embarked on a policy of strategic ambiguity on the relationship of Taiwan to ANZUS. It strictly adhered to it for 15 years and did not specifically depart from it over the next 40. Ambiguity served Australia well as it navigated successfully between big fish.

Strategic ambiguity since 2006 

Labour leaders allowed the Sino-Australian relationship to decline in 2006. On 8 September 2006, the leader of the opposition, Kim Beazley, foreswore strategic ambiguity. He raised the issue of Taiwan and ANZUS at his first meeting with US Ambassador Robert McCallum. Beazley said that in the event of a war between the United States and China over Taiwan, Australia would have absolutely no alternative but to line up militarily alongside the US, otherwise the alliance would be effectively dead and buried.

In 2009, China demanded that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd affirm that Australia–China relations would be based on mutual respect. There were climate-change and commercial frictions, and the 2009 Defence White Paper, in which Rudd was exceptionally involved, contemplated a war scenario in the Taiwan Strait. However, the demand was sparked by an equivocal statement Rudd made on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, which was perceived as interference in China’s internal affairs.

Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard, made efforts to repair the damage. She and her foreign minister, Bob Carr, trod carefully through the minefields of Taiwan, Tibet and human rights. They concluded a strategic partnership with China in April 2013, but it has had nothing like the substance of other such partnerships China has concluded. It was so insignificant and contradictory alongside Australia’s wholehearted embrace of the US pivot to Asia that it lacked authenticity. Labour’s priority was readily adopted by succeeding conservative governments.

Avoiding the Thucydides Trap

Australia’s apparent military commitment to the US in Taiwan has lasted throughout the period when Xi Jinping, the embodiment of China’s confidence and sense of exceptionalism, has been heir apparent and president. Australia is vulnerable to retributive actions and, more importantly, is disadvantaged in rebuilding the relationship with China. The dual challenge calls for dedicated whole-of-government machinery.

The entry of Japan, which under Shinzo Abe desperately seeks partners to manage China’s rise, compounds risk management. Australia’s military response, facilitated by the US, is problematic. It has included adding Japan to a major biennial bilateral military exercise from 2015 and embedding a warship with the Seventh Fleet in Fukuoka during a dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. The former Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson describes the latter as a political decision. It is Australian practice not to withdraw armed forces which have been embedded with another country’s in the event of hostilities breaking out, and so Australia could have been drawn into war with China.

Consequently, China’s perception could well be of ANZUS, the Japan-US security alliance and the quasi-alliance which has developed between Australia and Japan coalescing into a de facto alliance or ‘JANZUS’. The next step could be to extend it to Japan’s former colony Taiwan. This could pitch Australia into the cauldron of matters left over from Sino-Japanese history.

The costs for Australia have been great, including a stubborn image of an eager deputy sheriff insensitively threatening pre-emption in its region. These factors could impede Australia in trying to develop bilateral security ties with India, Indonesia and Singapore. These countries are not committed to go to war alongside the US over Taiwan.

The times demand that Australia has room to manoeuvre as a middle power and has options like the legal initiatives it was able to take for Hong Kong. The Turnbull government’s prudent policy on the South China Sea provides some encouragement. Any process of accommodation, such as a deal between the US and China, would involve trade-offs.  Australia must stand for restraint, negotiation and legality.

Garry Woodard is senior fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne and a former Australian ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. He is also a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This is an abridged version of an article published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs on 3 December 2017. AIIA members have free access to the AJIA. The abridgement was completed by the AIIA National Office. 

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