Best way to avoid war is to arm Taiwan
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Best way to avoid war is to arm Taiwan

Originally published in The Australian.


Our Taiwan debate has been marred by two misperceptions and one fallacy.

The first misperception is that war over Taiwan is improbable. This proposition is harder to sustain as Beijing continues to ratchet up pressure on Taipei.

Flying drones over small islands controlled by Taiwan is the latest in a long line of Chinese provocations and another step on the ladder of escalation that significantly increases the risk of military conflict.

Taipei has been remarkably restrained until now. But the administration of Tsai Ing-wen couldn’t allow the drones to fly uncontested over its territory without challenge. Its four-step response protocols have been measured: fire warning flares, report the incursion, expel the drone and shoot it down only as a last resort.

Last week, Taiwan’s patience finally ran out. Its armed forces shot down an infringing Chinese drone over Kinmen island.

Since the controversial visit to Taiwan early last month by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China has ramped up military pressure to dangerous levels. The People’s Liberation Army has fired missiles over Taiwan, repeatedly penetrated the country’s air defence identification zone and carried out a dress rehearsal for an economic blockade of the island.

PLA operations have not yet transgressed Taiwan’s 12-nautical-mile territorial sea or airspace. But if this border is breached, Taiwan has threatened to counter-attack. Worryingly, there is no sign of a circuit-breaker.

The fallacy is that the increased tensions over Taiwan are largely the fault of the US and that Australian national security hawks are part of the problem.

Exhibit A is the Pelosi visit, which has been decried as gratuitous, inflammatory and self-serving, forcing China to respond. China critics are accused of stirring up America to assert its primacy in Asia or irresponsibly urging a US-China showdown.

These views conveniently ignore China’s aggressive approach to Taiwan that is the primary cause of escalating tensions. Taiwan has not been flying drones over China, penetrating its air defence identification zone, lobbing missiles over the mainland or threatening economic embargoes. Tsai is pragmatic, understated and respected for her calm leadership. She has never crossed Beijing’s red line by publicly declaring Taiwan’s independence. To hold her accountable for the rising tensions is like blaming the victim for a mugging.

One can debate the timing of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. But as Pelosi argues, China is not entitled to dictate the travel plans of other countries’ representatives. Neither the US nor Australia endorses China’s claim to Taiwan. And under the Taiwan Relations Act, the US is obliged to assist Taiwan in maintaining defence capabilities against the threat of an invasion. Beijing may not like these positions, but they are well known and an integral part of the status quo. The problem is that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made it abundantly clear that he intends to overturn the status quo. He should not be surprised if other countries respond accordingly.

It is sophistry to frame the Australian debate as one between sensible realists and alarmist hawks who are talking up conflict in the belief that the US can be victorious over 1.4 billion Chinese. Or that we are sleepwalking to war. The Australian and US intelligence communities have no illusions about what a Taiwan conflict would mean. Everyone would lose.

Labor, the Coalition and the Biden administration share the assessment that the goal of the allies must be to prevent a war over Taiwan by deterring China from using force. This can be achieved only by persuading Xi that the costs of such an action far outweigh any perceived gain. Peace won’t be advanced by abandoning Taiwan or dealing with China from a position of weakness.

A second misperception is that if there is a war over Taiwan we shouldn’t get involved because the island’s fate is not a core national security interest. This is a dangerous illusion. The stakes could not be higher.

If you think a Sino-US conflict wouldn’t have a devastating effect on Australia, consider this. No US administration could sit idly by and allow Taiwan to fall. The loss of Taiwan would fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific in favour of China.

It also would undermine the US alliance and deal a potentially fatal blow to the rules-based system that has benefited us immeasurably.

A war over Taiwan would quickly turn into a direct confrontation between the world’s two leading states, which account for 40 per cent of the global economy. Both are nuclear powers. The fallout would make Russia’s invasion of Ukraine look like a scuffle in the park.

China may calculate that it can defeat Taiwan before the US can come to the rescue. But in a compelling study for the American Enterprise Institute, historian Hal Brands concludes that wars between large powers are seldom short or decisive: “They frequently get bigger, messier and harder to untangle.” A Sino-American conflict is likely to trigger a protracted wider war even if China is successful in taking Taiwan.

This would destabilise economies around the world, putting another nail in the coffin of globalisation and pushing up the price of everything from food to energy, computer chips, lifesaving medicines and critical minerals.

Australia would not escape the carnage. Even a limited conflict would severely disrupt our exports to China, Japan and South Korea. If the conflict spread to the Malacca Strait, imports of refined petroleum products for transport and agriculture could be cut off. Given our limited reserves, the economy would quickly grind to a halt.

We should reject the view that Taiwan doesn’t matter, that the US is responsible for the escalating crisis or that Washington faces the binary choice of leaving Taiwan to its fate or committing to its defence and risking catastrophic defeat.

There are many other choices. The best way to avoid a war is for the US to arm Taiwan, as it has Ukraine, and for the democracies to use their economic and financial power to dissuade China from choosing the path of coercion and military force.


Areas of expertise: Political and strategic developments in East Asia; transnational security issues; intelligence; Australian national security and defence