Is there a role for Australia to play in preventing conflict in the Taiwan Strait? Brendan Taylor, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, tackles this question in a recent policy brief for the Lowy Institute. In sum, Taylor argues that Canberra should proactively advocate for “crisis management and avoidance mechanisms designed both to reduce the risk of inadvertent conflict and to manage a bull-blown Taiwan crisis.” Whether and how Australia can usefully shape cross-Strait dynamics in scenarios short of war receives too little attention in Washington and, according to Taylor, in Canberra. This paper, then, is a valuable contribution to the scholarship surrounding one of Asia’s most complex, most dangerous flashpoints. Yet, while Taylor’s case for a more “activist” Australian approach to the Taiwan Strait is convincing, his recommendations are more restrained than Australian interests merit.
Why Taiwan Matters
In his policy brief, Taylor focuses on why a cross-Strait “crisis” (by which he means armed conflict) would be detrimental for Australia. His primary concern appears to be the economic repercussions, which is understandable given China’s role as Australia’s largest trading partner. “A serious Chinese economic downturn,” which a war with the United States over Taiwan’s fate would bring about, “would almost certainly trigger a recession [in Australia].” Elsewhere in the paper, Taylor highlights Taiwan’s role as “a critical link in global supply chains” and notes that Taiwan’s East Asian neighbors—important economic partners for Australia—would be negatively affected by a conflict involving Taiwan. “Major conflict could swiftly reverse this region’s economic miracle, triggering an Australian recession given our considerable trade dependence upon China, with serious consequences for the Australian economy and standard of living.”
Other “potential consequences” for Australia include Chinese retaliation, in the vein of Beijing’s response to Seoul’s decision to host THAAD, should Washington invoke the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty and ask Canberra for a military contribution to a fight over Taiwan’s fate. Somewhat oddly, Taylor worries that in the event of a crisis, “Australia’s Taiwanese diaspora—concentrated in Brisbane and numbering in the ‘tens of thousands’—could take to the streets, inspired by the globalization of Hong Kong’s crisis.” If such demonstrators were truly inspired by Hong Kong, any marches would be peaceful unless Australian police modeled their own response on that of Hong Kong law enforcement, which seems unlikely. Noting that “Beijing’s supporters in Australia would almost certainly respond in kind,” Taylor is perhaps worried about communal violence, although he does not explicitly say so.
Taylor’s assessment of Australian interests, however, is arguably incomplete. Although he highlights the implications of a crisis, he does not touch on the outcomes for Australia in the event that a Taiwan Strait crisis ends in Beijing’s favor—which presumably would mean the People’s Republic of China’s annexation of Taiwan. The strategic consequences of such an eventuality would be significant. In such a scenario, the United States would have either sat out the conflict, proving itself a paper tiger, or would have seen its military defeated in conflict with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Either set of circumstances would significantly undermine the US alliance system in Asia and embolden China to act even more assertively vis-à-vis its neighbors, including Australia, in the future.
Second, and related, Chinese annexation of Taiwan would give the PLA easy access to the Pacific Ocean, enabling it to more readily threaten Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Continental United States. Additionally, Chinese control of Taiwan would make Japan far more difficult to defend in the event of a Sino-Japanese conflict and would facilitate Chinese control of the South China Sea. These are all adverse outcomes for Australia, given its approach to national defense that places the US alliance front and center. As Taylor notes, Australia has a “high level of dependence upon the United States for intelligence access, military technology and, indeed, the very defense of the continent.” Defense of the continent would certainly become all the more difficult in a world where the United States finds it increasingly challenging to defend both itself and Japan, home to the 7th Fleet and approximately 50,000 US service members.
In short, Taylor’s claim—that “the stakes for Canberra are high”—is accurate. They are, however, even higher than he presents them. A more expansive assessment of Australian interests in the Taiwan Strait should arguably lead to a more activist Australian approach.
Taylor’s support for what might be called “restrained activism” results not only from an incomplete assessment of Australian interests, but also from an assessment of cross-Strait relations that is balanced to a fault. Noting that Australian criticisms of Xi Jinping for heightening tensions in the Strait are valid only “up to a point,” Taylor seems to see Taiwan’s own actions as contributing in equal measure to a downturn in stability.
Taylor does provide an overview of the ways in which China has behaved badly in recent years, and although that discussion is clearly not meant to be comprehensive, he does leave out two important data points. First, the author omits any mention of Beijing’s efforts to control the way foreign companies refer to Taiwan in markets outside of China. As I have argued previously in the Global Taiwan Brief, these “efforts to symbolically erase Taiwan from the map, at least in the minds of global consumers” are central to Beijing’s competition with Taipei for hearts and minds. By decreasing awareness of Taiwan and its predicament amongst foreign citizenries, Beijing creates conditions whereby it can more easily act with impunity in the Strait.
Second, Taylor omits Beijing’s ongoing effort to strip Taiwan of formal diplomatic partners. The PRC has whittled that group down to 15 over the last four years, an initiative that, should it continue, may be far more disruptive to cross-Strait stability than any other Chinese actions short of the use of force. As the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies approaches zero, support for formal independence within the country may well grow. This is a scenario I have laid out for the Global Taiwan Brief before:
The Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States defines a “state,” or a country, as possessing the following qualifications: “(a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other States.” The Republic of China, or Taiwan, meets all of these qualifications. If China deprives Taiwan of most or all of its remaining diplomatic allies—effectively depriving it of the capacity to enter into relations with other states—the rationale for the continued existence of the Republic of China might weaken. At the very least, it would open the door for Taiwan’s people to consider alternatives to the ROC constitution and alternative means of defining Taiwan as a political entity.
Harder to defend than the omission of these details is Taylor’s seeming presentation of Taipei’s contributions to rising tensions as equivalent to those of Beijing. Indeed, he dedicates far more space to an analysis of the ways in which “Taipei, too, is challenging the uneasy cross-Strait status quo which, until now, has largely kept the peace.” He describes as provocative a tweet from Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and highlights Tsai Ing-wen’s four nights, split between two transits, in the United States last year (“the longest ‘transit’ to date by a Taiwanese leader”). He inaccurately, though forgivably, describes Vice President-elect William Lai as “the highest-ranking Taiwanese representative to visit the US capital, Washington, DC, in four decades.” Lai, of course, is a private citizen and will remain so until the inauguration. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but in the world of “One-China” policy sensitivities, such distinctions are crucial.
Taylor goes on to describe the growing number of Taiwan’s citizens that identify as “Taiwanese” instead of “Chinese” and notes that “anti-unification sentiments are becoming even more pronounced among Taiwan’s younger generations.” He argues that “Taipei feels emboldened” because of its close relationship with Washington, but he does not effectively make the case that Taiwan has acted in an “emboldened” fashion. On the contrary, Tsai has been a cautious leader, consistently calling for maintenance of the status quo, pursuing cross-Strait talks without political preconditions, and fending off pressure from the more independence-minded wing of the Democratic Progressive Party. Indeed, Tsai has arguably been too cautious, for example by downplaying the PLA’s threatening military activities in the Strait, which she could potentially use to secure stronger international backing or greater defense spending.
Put simply, even if provocative tweets and visits to the United States (that accord with the US “One-China” policy) do contribute to higher tensions in the Taiwan Strait, such acts are orders of magnitude less incendiary than military provocations, rhetorical threats from senior Chinese leaders, and a global effort aimed at furthering Taiwan’s international isolation.
What to Do
This seemingly evenhanded analysis of tensions in the Strait unsurprisingly leads to an emphasis on crisis management and risk avoidance. As Taylor argues:
But history shows that wars are often the product of misperception and miscalculation, with accidents and other acts of inadvertent escalation sometimes driving the course of events. Taiwan is increasingly susceptible to such a scenario. As the skies and the waters around the island become increasingly crowded and contested, the risk that military ships or aircraft might collide in the wrong place or at the wrong time is growing.
This is an astute observation. If Australia, in coordination with its partners, can successfully encourage Beijing and Taipei to establish “more robust crisis management and risk avoidance mechanisms,” it should certainly do so. Such mechanisms could enhance stability in the Taiwan Strait and decrease the likelihood that an accident, or even an intentional provocation, would lead to conflict.
But the possibility of an intentional Chinese decision to use force against Taiwan receives short shrift in the policy brief. Xi Jinping has made big promises about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but many of those promises (especially those regarding greater prosperity for all) will be increasingly hard to fulfill. With domestic challenges mounting and with the military balance in the Taiwan Strait increasingly favoring Beijing (a trend that Taylor notes), Xi may grow all the more tempted to cement his place atop the Chinese Communist Party and in the pantheon of great Chinese leaders by settling the so-called Taiwan question once and for all. Just as important as preventing incipient crises from spiraling out of control, then, is deterring Xi Jinping from making such a fateful decision.
What should Australia do? Taylor dismisses an argument in favor of deterrence from Rod Lyon and Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. They write:
It’s the prospect of a protracted, bloody conflict against the US and perhaps others, as well as Taiwan, that ought to be uppermost in Chinese policymakers’ minds when the issue arises in Beijing. Conquest, via an unprovoked attack, shouldn’t look easy and attractive—and should not be licensed by pre-emptive statements that others will not act.
As Taylor notes, “this would require the United States and its allies to actively signal their potential involvement in a Taiwan conflict, with a view to deterring Chinese moves against Taiwan.” But Taylor insists this is “ill-advised” and “carries significant risks.” He offers two reasons, neither of which holds up to close scrutiny.
First he argues that “an ‘enhanced deterrence’ strategy […] could generate a ‘vicious’ security dilemma in which ‘one or both sides may become so frightened (or provoked by the other side, objectively or subjectively) that they may decide that their security now requires them to pursue aggression’” (Taylor here is citing Shiping Tang’s scholarship on security dilemmas). It is difficult, however, to see how this logic applies in the case of the Taiwan Strait. There are few more clear-cut cases of a state enhancing its military capabilities for purely defensive reasons than that of Taiwan. Even if Taiwan decided to pursue de jure independence, this would not require any offensive action, nor is it conceivable that Taiwan’s security partners would undertake offensive action on Taipei’s behalf. Taiwan is already de facto free and independent; offensive action against the PRC would not make Taiwan any freer or more independent.
One might argue that the United States and its partners, in clarifying their commitments to Taiwan’s defense, would heighten Beijing’s perceptions of insecurity. But this would not, as Tang suggests, lead China to change its intentions “from benign to malign.” Chinese intentions vis-à-vis Taiwan are already malign. The question for Taiwan and its friends is how to prevent China from acting on those malign intentions. “Enhanced deterrence” may be the most powerful tool for doing so.
The second reason, according to Taylor, that “enhanced deterrence” is ill-advised is that Beijing does not view the American commitment to Taiwan’s defense as credible. “Beijing’s doubts about American resolve to defend Taiwan pre-date even the avowedly ‘America First’ Trump administration: the lack of a US response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea reportedly made a deep impression on Xi.” To be sure, such doubts do exist in Beijing, as they certainly do in Taipei, Tokyo, Canberra, and elsewhere. But of course, the entire point of clarifying the US commitment to preserving Taiwan’s de facto independence, by force if necessary, would be to dispel those doubts. Indeed, it is precisely because Beijing doubts American resolve that a shift away from the longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” is needed. If it is not possible to change perceptions in Beijing—whether of US and allied commitment or Taiwan’s own resolve—then an armed Chinese attack on Taiwan is all but inevitable once Beijing admits that uncoerced unification is a pipe dream.
Ideally, then, Canberra would clarify that if Washington invoked the ANZUS Treaty in the event of an unprovoked Chinese attack on Taiwan, Australia would honor its treaty commitments. Domestic political and diplomatic realities, of course, make such a step unlikely. Nor can Washington reasonably expect Canberra to do so as long as the United States maintains its own “strategic ambiguity” with respect to the Taiwan Strait.
There are, however, additional steps Australia can take beyond Taylor’s thoughtful recommendations to contribute to the deterrence of the People’s Republic. The proposals below are presented in order of increasing sensitivity, but all are aimed at weaving Taiwan more tightly into the broader international community, enhancing its importance to Australia and other countries, and signaling to China that Australia cares deeply about Taiwan’s continued de facto independence:
1. “Lend” Taiwan diplomatic clout. Australia is well positioned to counter PRC efforts to isolate Taiwan on the international stage (and is already doing so). This is particularly true in the Pacific Islands, where Australia has long exercised regional leadership and where Taiwan faces a growing challenge from Beijing’s diplomatic offensive. To the extent that Canberra can dissuade the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu from deeper engagement with Beijing, it should do so. Canberra should also continue to use its diplomatic influence, working alongside likeminded partners, to secure Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations.
2. Participate in the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). Australia should follow Japan’s lead and participate in the GCTF, a US-Taiwan initiative, as a coordinating partner. As described by the State Department’s Indo-Pacific strategy report (though not by name), via the GCTF, the United States and Taiwan have “convene[d] hundreds of Indo-Pacific policymakers and experts on issues including public health, women’s empowerment, media disinformation, and the digital economy.” For Australia, bolstering the GCTF would be a low-risk way to counter Chinese efforts to isolate Taiwan. Notably, Japan and Sweden have both now co-hosted workshops without drawing Beijing’s ire.
3. Sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with Taiwan. Australia dropped plans for an FTA with Taiwan two years ago after China expressed its disapproval. As former foreign minister Julie Bishop told Australian media at the time, “The Chinese government made it clear to me that circumstances had changed between Taiwan and mainland China and that China would not look favourably on Australia seeking to pursue a free trade agreement with Taiwan…” The economic case for a bilateral FTA has likely not changed during the past two years, while the strategic case has only grown. Deepening bilateral economic engagement will serve to deepen Australian interests in Taiwan, which can indirectly contribute to deterring China. It might also be worthwhile for Canberra to signal to Beijing that the PRC’s economic leverage does not grant it a veto over Australian trade policy.
4. Create an Australian Taiwan Relations Act. There is no equivalent in Australia to the US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which governs relations between the United States and Taiwan. Enacting an Australian TRA would have important signaling value, especially if it emulated some of the TRA’s language describing US policy. The TRA is perhaps best known for its requirement that the United States “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” but such a policy is still a bridge too far for Canberra. Australian lawmakers should, instead, consider drawing from the TRA’s language regarding US interests. Particularly valuable would be an echo of Section 2b, which asserts that it is US policy “to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
5. Establish a military-to-military relationship. Admittedly, there is not much appetite for such a step in Canberra. But if tiny Singapore can maintain a fruitful, long-term military-to-military relationship with Taiwan, it stands to reason that Australia can do so as well. Quiet, bilateral exercises, perhaps held in a third country, would be a good place to start. The benefits of pursuing such ties are threefold. One, they could contribute to the Taiwan military’s improved efficacy and thus its deterrent effect. Second, military-to-military ties would allow both militaries to better understand how the other operates and would create opportunities to develop personal relationships, both of which could come in handy in the event of a true crisis. Third, a defense relationship would be a concrete way to signal Australian commitment to Taiwan’s defense, but ironically perhaps a less provocative one than publicly clarifying Australian obligations under the ANZUS Treaty.
Brendan Taylor has made an undoubtedly valuable contribution to the policy debate regarding Australia’s approach to the Taiwan Strait. He rightly critiques what he describes as “a deliberate strategy of ‘lying low,’” convincingly calling for a more “activist” Australian policy. But in the end, his analyses of both Australia’s interests in the Strait and of cross-Strait dynamics lead him to advocate an activism that is more restrained than is merited. A fuller accounting of Australian interests and a more clear-eyed assessment of tensions in the Taiwan Strait make apparent the need for a far more assertive Australian approach to deterring Chinese aggression.
The main point: In a Lowy Institute policy brief, Brendan Taylor argues that Australia should adopt a more activist approach to the Taiwan Strait. His recommendation that Australia “advocate for more robust crisis management and risk avoidance mechanisms” is a good starting place, but there is far more that Canberra can and should do to avert conflict in the Taiwan Strait.