Flat White

The Taiwan tango: a delicate dance for Australia

4 February 2021

4:00 AM

4 February 2021

4:00 AM

It is done. Joseph Robinette Biden Jr has been inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States and has his feet firmly under the Resolute desk. Barring unforeseen events, Biden will serve to at least 20 January 2025. 

These coming four years would be tricky for any first term President, let alone for President who will be the oldest serving ever.  Biden has inherited a fractured and pandemic afflicted nation with numerous economic, social and geopolitical challenges.  Yet one issue that is expected to demand significant attention will be the US-China relationshipespecially as it relates to Taiwan.   

Conflict over Taiwan remains the most likely war scenario in East Asia and would have significant national security consequences for Australia.  Not only does a majority of Australia’s inbound and outbound trade pass through the region, but Australia may be involuntarily sucked into any regional conflict. 

Paul Dibb, former senior Australian defence and intelligence official has said that if “American troops were being killed across the Taiwan Strait and we (Australia) don’t offer to support America, the future of the ANZUS treaty would be at risk”.  Dibb, someone who is well informed on the subject, has also previously written that “the ADF (Australian Defence Force) is not a credible military force without our close defence relationship with Washington”.

Tensions around Taiwan are rising.  Just this week Beijing signalled to the new Biden administration that a Taiwanese move to independence would “mean war”.  This followed several provocative Chinese acts including 13 combat Chinese aircraft entering into Taiwanese airspace in the past weeks.

Is a forced reunification of Taiwan with China predestined?  In September 2013, shortly after Xi Jingping commenced his first term as President of China, a pro-government newspaper, Wenweipo published “Six Wars China Is Sure to Fight In the Next 50 Years”. Written for domestic audience, Wenweipo suggested that China would fight a war to reunify Taiwan sometime between 2020 and 2025 and it would be necessary because China “should not daydream a resolution of peaceful unification from Taiwan administration”.  This timetable for a forceable reunification of Taiwan conveniently overlaps President Biden’s first term.   

Regaining sovereignty over Taiwan remains a priority for President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.  Taiwan is the world’s only Chinese democracy.  Its very existence is an existential threat to the Communist Party, demonstrating that there can in fact be a democracy with Chinese characteristics.  China’s forcible reunification with Taiwan would also send a clear signal to America’s Pacific allies, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, that the US’s defence umbrella may not be entirely water-resistant. 

Taiwan is additionally important for China’s geostrategic and economic ambitions.  The US Government recently banned the sale of semi-conductors using US technology to China’s Huawei and ZTE, yet the bulk of the world’s advanced semi-conductors are produced in Taiwan. Taiwanese foundries are the most advanced in the world producing the semi-conductors that power the phones, cars, cameras and other devices that will form the internet of things running on 5G networks.  This US trade action exposes China’s vulnerabilities.   

The policy of the US Government on Taiwan is that unification should be achieved through peaceful means.  Th1979 Taiwan Relations Act compels the US government maintain a capacity to resist a forced or coerced unification.  However, a May 2020 report noted that “the United States would be defeated in a sea war with China and would struggle to stop an invasion of Taiwan”.  And in August 2020, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell and former Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld jointly predicted that a Chinese operation could be completed within three days.

Peaceful reunification had been the stated policy of the Chinese government until May 2020 when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang dropped the word “peaceful” in a speech to the Chinese Parliament.  And in December 2020, the Global Times, reported that “reunification between the mainland and the island of Taiwan will not be realized without military pressure”.  All the while, China continues to build a military capability for the purpose of taking Taiwan.

In December 2020, the People’s Liberation Army also confirmed that the recently commissioned Shandong aircraft carrier group passed through the Taiwan Straits on its way to military exercises in the area.  The Global Times suggested that this transit “can also be seen as a warning that aims to deter Taiwan secessionists”.

The views of the new Biden Administration are not clear.  Biden has appointed Kurt Campbell as Asia czar and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs.  Campbell was one of the architects of the Obama administrations Pivot to Asia.  Yet Biden’s Defence Secretary is retired Army General Lloyd Austin who comes from the service least relevant in dealing with China.  He spent most of his military career in the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia in areas unrelated to China.  Biden’s nominee for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy is Colin Kahl who with Austin, designed and executed the Obama administrations Middle East policies. 

Michèle Flournoyformer Obama Under Secretary of Defense for Policy has warned that “that risk (of war) is higher than it has been for decades, and it is growing” because of an “uniquely dangerous mix of growing Chinese assertiveness and military strength and eroding U.S. deterrence”.

Flournoy has advocated for an enhanced US presence in the Pacific to “re-establish credible deterrence of China” so as to “prevent the success of any act of military aggression by Beijing, either by denying the PLA’s ability to achieve its aims or by imposing costs so great that Chinese leaders ultimately decide that the act is not in their interest”.

If the Wenweipo timetable for China’s unification with Taiwan proves accurate, the next four years will be a very turbulent time.  Australia may be forced to make some very uncomfortable choices between exceptionally bad options.  Our preparedness is not clear.  China’s recent trade injunctions on Australia could be but a hint of what may come.  Worse for Australia, the Biden administration’s preparedness is not clear either. 

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