Amid the worsening of trade and political tensions between Australia and China, Taiwan has offered to purchase Australian goods sanctioned by China, such as Australian wine. In December 2020, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan bought 200 bottles of Australian wine—dubbed “freedom wine” (自由紅酒)—to express solidarity with Canberra as it faces intense pressure from Beijing to change its anti-China policies. Taiwanese legislators also publicized their support for a global campaign spearheaded by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC，對華政策跨國議會聯盟), a group of more than 200 lawmakers from 19 countries that urged people around the world to “stand against [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s (習近平) authoritarian bullying” by buying Australian wine. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) stated that Taipei “empathizes with the same feeling of tremendous pressure that Australia faces” and is working with Canberra to boost economic and trade cooperation to help relieve some of the trade pressures imposed by Beijing. Taipei also hopes that its efforts to stand with Australia will translate into greater Australian cooperation and support for Taiwan’s struggles against its more powerful rival.
China-Australia relations have heated up in recent years, following the public exposure of Chinese influence operations and interference in Australian domestic politics. Canberra responded to these revelations by passing foreign interference laws and banning Chinese companies Huawei (華為) and ZTE (中興通訊) from the roll-out of 5G technology in 2018 over national security concerns. More recently, tensions mounted after Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 in April 2020, which was later compounded by Chinese tariffs and bans on USD $20 billion worth of Australian exports including barley, beef, wine, lobsters, timber, and coal in apparent retaliation for Canberra’s actions.
Speaking at a press conference in November 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) cited Australia’s “series of wrong moves related to China” as the main reason behind the current deterioration in Sino-Australian relations. Zhao expressed dissatisfaction with Canberra’s positions on China’s core interests regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, including endorsing Taipei’s participation in the World Health Assembly. Later that month, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra sent a list of 14 grievances to Australian media. The list of complaints includes Australia’s “incessant wanton interference in China’s Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan affairs,” statements on the South China Sea, and accusations against China on cyber attacks. The Chinese further argued that Canberra had to change its policies on this list for the resumption of bilateral dialogue at the ministerial and leadership levels. Australian politicians, however, have pushed back against these Chinese demands, arguing that their nation’s sovereignty was at stake.
In its series of trade sanctions, Beijing has sought to teach Canberra, a close US security ally, a lesson for participating in what it believes to be anti-China campaigns led by the former Trump administration. Indeed, Liberal National Member of Parliament (MP) George Christensen said that Australia has become a “guinea pig” for China’s strong-arm tactics against countries that do not abide by Beijing’s policies. Christensen observed that “China is giving us a big shake in order to spook other countries from doing things which China might not be happy with including domestic laws that they’re not happy with.” He called on the free world to band together and jointly stand up against China’s use of trade tactics to interfere in other countries’ domestic politics. Taipei has responded earnestly to this call for help, while also calling for Canberra’s assistance in standing up to Chinese security and political threats against the island.
Australia’s Enhanced Profile in Regional Affairs
In recent years, Australia’s role in Asia-Pacific affairs has increased, as countries in the region have become more active amid perceptions of waning US influence under the Trump administration. US allies such as Japan and Australia, led by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, had a major influence on the US national security document on the Indo-Pacific strategy released during the last days of the Trump administration. The document’s major objectives include “defending the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan” and enabling Taiwan “to develop an effective asymmetric defense strategy and capabilities.” In line with the Trump administration’s positions on regional issues, Australia has spoken out against the mistreatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong, as well as endorsed Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization. After signing the Reciprocal Access Agreement in November 2020, Australia and Japan expressed concerns about destabilizing developments in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Hong Kong, and leaders from both governments said that “trade should never be used as a tool to apply political pressure,” in an apparent rebuke of Beijing’s strong-arm methods.
Taipei has also recognized the benefits of Australia’s expanded commitments to regional stability. “We are deeply impressed by Australia’s rapid actions, taken to protect not only itself but the region,” President Tsai said in an address to an Australian think tank in August of last year. Tsai added, “It is my hope that Taiwan can also collaborate with Australia in these efforts to maintain stability and peace in the region,” referring to Canberra’s “Pacific Step-up” policy and “Indo-Pacific Endeavor.” Moreover, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act of 2019 (TAIPEI Act) acknowledges that “Taiwan’s unique relationship with the United States, Australia, India, Japan, and other countries are of significant benefit in strengthening Taiwan’s economy and preserving its international space.”
Opportunities for Taiwan-Australia Cooperation
In light of Australia’s growing role in the region, Taiwanese politicians such as Wang Ting-yu (王定宇), the co-chair of Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee in the Legislative Yuan, are calling for greater cooperation with other democracies including Australia to promote regional security. Wang proposed that Taiwan join the Quad framework—alongside the United States, Australia, Japan, and India—as a means to further deter Chinese aggression against the island. Likewise, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) highlighted the urgency of bringing together Australia and other like-minded neighbors to contain Chinese expansionism in the region and to help defend Taiwan against Beijing’s military maneuvers and threats of invasion. While Wu said he did not expect Canberra to send troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a cross-Strait conflict, he suggested that Taiwan and Australia could cooperate in sharing information and intelligence on China. Furthermore, Taiwan could benefit economically from the trade fall-out between China and Australia. Faced with trade sanctions imposed by China, Australia is searching for alternative export markets for its goods, including Taiwan. The island constitutes Australia’s sixth-largest export market and is a major consumer of Australian agricultural products and energy resources such as coal and natural gas. Meanwhile, Taiwanese high-tech exports to the continent include computers and telecommunication equipment and parts. Officials in Canberra and Taipei launched talks in December last year to discuss expanding bilateral trade, which reached USD $11.4 billion in 2020.
Ultimately, Taipei would like to sign a formal economic cooperation agreement with Australia—ideally a free trade agreement (FTA)—as it had done with Australia’s neighbor New Zealand in 2013. As a competitor with New Zealand in beef and agricultural products, Australia may stand to lose its competitiveness on such exports to Taiwan in the absence of an FTA. Furthermore, Australia, China, and other Asia-Pacific countries recently formed a major regional trading bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Partnership (RCEP), which Taipei aspires to join but has thus far been excluded from. Tsai’s government has pinned its hopes on participating in another economic grouping, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and views an economic cooperation agreement with Australia as facilitating that broader objective.
However, as it currently stands, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government is not seeking to sign an FTA with Taiwan for concerns that doing so would add fuel to the fire in an already bitter Sino-Australian relationship. In 2018, Canberra shelved plans to pursue a bilateral trade deal with Taipei in a bid to prevent a falling-out with Beijing, reportedly after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) told then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in a series of meetings in 2017 and 2018 that China did not want Canberra to expand ties with Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government.
Despite these challenges towards achieving an FTA, there are still many arenas for bilateral collaboration. Gary Cowan, the previous Australian representative to Taiwan, believes that there are opportunities for Taiwan and Australia to cooperate more closely on energy development and biomedicine. Australia is Taiwan’s second-largest natural gas supplier, and the continent started supplying Taiwan with liquefied natural gas (LNG) on a long-term contract starting in 2018, reaching more than 4 million tons of LNG annually. As Taipei seeks to transition towards cleaner energy supplies, Cowan argues that Australia will be its closest supply partner and can provide assistance in natural gas, wind, and solar energy. Australian companies, for example, have assisted Taiwan in setting up offshore wind farms. Furthermore, in the area of public health and medicine, researchers from Taiwan’s Chang Gung University (長庚大學) and Australia’s Monash University have been jointly working on a treatment for COVID-19. Taipei and Canberra had also provided each other critical materials and resources needed in their national prevention efforts in the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Going forward, as the Biden administration’s policies towards the Indo-Pacific will likely affect strategic calculations and alignments in the region, there will be opportunities and challenges for Taiwan-Australia relations. Currently, Canberra is under extensive pressure from Beijing to tone down its public support of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. At the same time, the Biden administration’s evolving stance on Taiwan could create additional pressure on Australia to uphold US interests in the region, which would likely expose Canberra to even more Chinese browbeating. Ultimately, the Australian government will need to decide where it comes down between the United States and China, which will, in turn, affect the potential room for growth in its relations with Taiwan. In any case, Taipei should seize on the economic and trade openings created by the China-Australia trade spat to further strengthen bilateral relations with Canberra.
It is clear that even as the Biden administration formulates its regional strategy, Taiwan’s security, diplomatic space, and economy will be affected not only by the actions of the United States, but also of US allies in the region such as Australia. Therefore, Taipei must tap into the regional alliance structure and other security arrangements such as the Quad to better safeguard itself against Chinese military and political coercion.
The main point: Amid trade and political tensions in China-Australia relations, Taipei has voiced support for Australia in confronting intense Chinese pressure and interference, in hopes that Canberra could also support Taiwan’s ability to safeguard its democracy against Chinese military threats.