Australia has voiced concerns about China’s largest incursions—comprising 145 fighter jets and bombers—into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over four consecutive days from October 1 to 4. “Australia is concerned by China’s increased air incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone over the past week,” said a spokesperson for Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “Resolution of differences over Taiwan and other regional issues must be achieved peacefully through dialogue and without the threat or use of force or coercion.”
The Chinese military maneuvers were arguably meant to test the Biden Administration’s support for Taiwan; yet these Chinese measures have further alarmed US regional allies such as Australia about the growing security threat posed by China. Canberra said it wants to see “an Indo-Pacific region that is secure, prosperous, and based on the rule of law.” Australia’s statements on Taiwan Strait security come as the country has grown more concerned about a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the deleterious effects on Australian national security.
Australia’s Awakening to the China Threat in the Indo-Pacific
As a middle-sized power in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia has long been striving to balance its alliance with the United States and its economic and trade relations with China. After coming into office in 2018, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially did not want to choose between his country’s main security ally and largest trading partner as US-China trade and security ties mounted. However, Australia’s own deteriorating relationship with China, which has boiled over due to Beijing’s imposition of trade sanctions on Canberra, coupled with a more dangerous security environment marked by Chinese aggression in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait, seems to have pushed Canberra more firmly toward its security alliance with the United States.
China’s growing military power and its expansionist behavior in the Indo-Pacific region have exposed the vulnerabilities of Australia’s defense capabilities. Retired army general and Liberal Senator Jim Molan called China the most “dangerous threat to the existence” and prosperity of Australia. Molan also expressed concern that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could force the United States out of the western Pacific—resulting in Chinese military and political dominance over the Indo-Pacific region, to the detriment of Australian national security. Molan argued that because the Biden Administration is “not confident” it can handle a Taiwan contingency, Australia may be left on its own to repel possible Chinese military action against it and thus needs to seriously focus on defense preparations for a potential war. In recent months, the Australian government has been ramping up its internal preparations for a Taiwan Strait contingency. Australian officials are increasingly worried that their country might be dragged into a war in the Indo-Pacific over Taiwan.
Against the backdrop of a rising China threat in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced the formation of the trilateral AUKUS alliance on September 15, 2021. Under the new partnership, the United States and United Kingdom will help Australia obtain and deploy nuclear-powered submarines and share information and technology in an effort to strengthen Australia’s declining defense capabilities and contend with Chinese naval and military activities in the region. After signing the AUKUS agreement, Morrison called Australia’s security alignment with the United States a “forever partnership […] between the oldest and most trusted of friends.” In essence, Canberra finally made the critical decision to double down on its alliance and deepen military relations with the United States. Contrary to the Australian government’s past stance that the Australia, New Zealand, and United States (ANZUS) treaty does not oblige Canberra to assist Washington in a conflict over Taiwan, the AUKUS agreement has raised some expectations that Australia may join the United States in a potential Taiwan Strait conflict.
Taipei praised the AUKUS agreement that could help counter China’s military power and assertiveness in the region. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) remarked, “We are pleased to see that the like-minded partners of Taiwan—the United States and the UK and Australia—are working closer with each other to acquire more advanced defense articles so that we can defend [the] Indo-Pacific.” Wu commented, “I’m very glad to see that Australia is going to shoulder more responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” He also reiterated his previous calls for Taiwan and Australia to share intelligence and engage in security exchanges.
Indeed, Australia could play an important role in a US-led deterrence strategy to increase the political and security costs of a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. As former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who served from 2013 to 2015, said at a news conference on October 8, in order to avoid a Taiwan Strait war, the best way is to show Beijing that “Taiwan has friends.” Speaking at the annual Yushan Forum (玉山論壇) in Taipei, Abbott emphasized solidarity with Taiwan, and asserted that neither the United States nor Australia should allow China to take over democratically-ruled Taiwan. Taipei, meanwhile, has trumpeted the regional costs of a Chinese takeover of Taiwan in its external diplomacy. In a bid to internationalize Taiwan Strait security, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article that “a failure to defend Taiwan […] would overturn a security architecture that has allowed for peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades.”
Australian Official Statements on Taiwan
Over the past several months, the Australian government has issued numerous statements emphasizing the importance of Taiwan Strait security in its meetings with the United States and other key partners. During the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) on September 16, the secretaries and ministers of both sides “stated their intent to strengthen ties with Taiwan, which is a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries.” Washington and Canberra also “reiterated continued support for a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues without resorting to threats or coercion” and pledged support for Taiwan’s “meaningful participation in international organizations,” according to their joint statement.
The critical importance of the Taiwan Strait has also become a salient issue in Australia’s foreign relations with other key partners such as France and Japan. The first ever Australia-France 2+2 Ministerial Consultations in August called for a “peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” while also supporting Taipei’s enhanced participation in international organizations. In addition, a joint statement issued following the 2+2 meeting on June 9 between Australian and Japanese foreign and defense ministers stated for the first time that both sides “underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” The Australia-Japan statement on the Taiwan Strait was identical to the US-Japan joint leaders’ statement issued earlier in April.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (岸 信夫) said at the 2+2 meeting that both countries must “further deepen security cooperation” in order to “proactively contribute to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.” Last November, both sides signed a milestone defense pact that allows for reciprocal troop visits to conduct training and joint operations. Indeed, Australia and Japan are playing key roles as the two main regional powers that are upholding the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Similar to the Japanese policy evolution on the Taiwan Strait, Australia is also becoming more vocal and transparent about China’s threat to Indo-Pacific security and stability.
Canberra’s Support for Taiwan’s CPTPP Bid
Furthermore, Australia has become increasingly supportive of Taiwan’s enhanced participation in regional and international organizations. In light of its broader regional economic objectives, Taipei has asked for Australia to support Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a regional trade bloc formed in 2018 that comprises Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Taiwan formally applied to join the CPTPP on September 22, less than a week after China submitted its membership application. Procedurally speaking, the 11 member nations of the CPTPP need to unanimously approve Taipei’s and Beijing’s applications in order to admit them into the agreement. News reports suggest that Australia may be strategically coordinating with other partners on helping Taiwan gain entry into the trade agreement.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in particular, has championed Taiwan’s accession to the CPTPP and the deepening of economic ties between the two sides. Abbott has publicly expressed support for Taiwan’s entry to the CPTPP, which he called the best substantive support for the island. “I think right now the front-line of freedom is effectively Taiwan, and I think it’s very important that we do everything that we can to help strengthen Taiwan at this time,” Abbott remarked during an online discussion on October 15 hosted by Project 2049. “Personally, I think a very important way to strengthen Taiwan and to acknowledge Taiwan would be to admit it into the [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for] Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he said.
Therefore, he urged fellow democratic nations of the CPTPP to support Taipei’s bid. “I can’t think of a stronger signal of democracies standing shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan than Taiwan’s accession to the CPTPP,” Abbott said during his recent trip to the island. The former prime minister has also urged Taipei and Canberra to negotiate and sign an Economic Cooperation Agreement (ECA) to further strengthen economic ties, particularly at a time when the Morrison government is not eager to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with Taipei. Trade has become part of a strategy to deepen all-around ties between Taiwan and like-minded partners.
Australia’s increased engagement on Taiwan Strait security, as well as its support for Taipei’s meaningful participation in international organizations, is occurring amid a deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific region. A shift has occurred in Australia’s efforts to balance its relations with the United States and China. Canberra has come to realize the existential threat posed by China’s military strength and aggressive tactics in the region, and that Australian national interests are best protected by preserving US dominance in the Indo-Pacific. As tensions continue to rise in the Taiwan Strait and between China and the United States, Taipei should further engage Australia and other US allies on security and economic issues—and thereby internationalize attention to the Taiwan Strait—as part of a multilateral strategy to deter China from forcibly seizing the democratic island.
The main point: A shift has occurred in Australia’s efforts to balance its relations with the United States and China, with Canberra doubling down on its alliance with the United States. Australia’s own security concerns vis-à-vis China have driven its growing engagement on Taiwan Strait security.
Special thanks to GTI Fall 2021 Intern Adrienne Wu for her research assistance.