How does Australia square AUKUS with Taiwan?
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How does Australia square AUKUS with Taiwan?

Will the nuclear submarine deal with Washington drag Australia into a conflict with China? Not if Canberra uses its diplomatic powers well. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.


Australia’s China policy over the last decade has been tough, adventuresome and risky. In one area, however, caution and continuity have largely prevailed, on Taiwan.

Such caution was not always obvious under the Coalition government, led by Scott Morrison, whose ministers openly talked about war with China over Taiwan.

Morrison’s hawkish defence minister, Peter Dutton, said in late 2021 it was “inconceivable” that Australia would not support the US in a fight with China over Taiwan. Later that month, Dutton warned of the “terrible price” of inaction over Taiwan, comments supported by then prime minister Morrison.

Dutton’s comments caused a storm. But the political noise overshadowed the fact that the Morrison government, for all its rhetoric, never shifted from Australia’s foundational one-China policy.

Following Labor’s victory in the May 2022, election and Penny Wong’s appointment as foreign minister, Australia’s Taiwan policy, at least in public, has if anything become more cautious.

This caution is by design, as part of tacit deal with Beijing to revive bilateral ties with China, says Kevin Magee, a former diplomat who once headed Australia’s representative office in Taipei.

Whether this is true, and there has been no official confirmation, the fine line that Canberra is walking on Taiwan will only get tighter, for reasons which are much bigger than the management of bi-lateral ties.

At the core of the recently signed AUKUS deal is greater strategic intimacy and alignment with the US. As US policy – in the White House and in Congress – hardens towards Beijing, Canberra will come under pressure to follow.

Canberra only has genuine access and influence in one capital, and it isn’t Beijing.

From 2027, a number of US submarines will be rotated through Perth. Inevitably, tighter military ties with the US in the Indo-Pacific will involve co-ordination over Taiwan contingencies.

After all, AUKUS is dependent on Congress’s approval of highly sensitive US technologies, and not just those related to submarines. Would they approve such transfers if they thought Australia was unwilling to work hand-in-glove on Taiwan?

Australia, to take one example, has long refused Taipei’s requests to exchange military attaches. Eventually, that may no longer be tenable.

Given Beijing’s absolute commitment to taking control of the island, and Washington’s intensifying outreach to allies for support in east Asia, Australia won’t have the luxury of keeping its head down on Taiwan indefinitely.

Many AUKUS critics will argue this question is no longer up for debate. In other words, the decades-long deal to acquire the submarines and other technologies amounts to a de facto commitment to go all in with Washington in Asia, whatever direction it may go in.

But this is not in fact the government’s policy.

Wong has made numerous calls for a dialling-down of great competition in the region, and the value of guardrails to manage rising tensions between the US and China.

Kevin Rudd, in an interview with CNN, the last before taking up his posting as Australia’s ambassador to the US, made much the same point, only more sharply.

“There is a view across many countries that taking the temperature down is in the world’s interests, it is in allies’ interests, and it’s also in the interests of China’s closest friends and partners as well,” Rudd told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

“Their interest, like mine, and their anxiety, like mine,” Rudd said, referring to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Wong, “is that this is becoming dangerous.”

So, on the one hand, Australia is making its biggest military commitment since the war, aligning itself more closely with the US, and Japan, to deter China.

But on the other hand, we are telling the US to dial down tensions with their superpower rival.

In a world in which the sheer size and weight of AUKUS threatens to dominate strategy, cannibalise budgets and overshadow diplomacy, it will be difficult for the current government, and whomever may follow it, to chart this narrow path.

In the great power standoff, Australia can offer its views to both China and the US, but Canberra only has genuine access and influence in one capital, and it isn’t Beijing.

As Rudd told CNN, Australia will try, as a US ally, to work with Washington on the “granularity” of deterrence, and of mechanisms to reduce the risk of a crisis.

So how, and in what ways, could Australia counsel Washington on China policy.

The obvious place to start is on Taiwan itself, and the growing momentum within the Republican party, both in Congress and among potential candidates for the presidency in 2024, to ditch the “One China: policy.

The US formulation on Taiwan, which, like Australia’s, recognises one legal government of China, but only “acknowledges” Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, has given policymakers wiggle room over decades to support the island’s autonomy.

Ditch that, and Washington will almost certainly force Beijing’s hand.

War over Taiwan is possible but neither likely nor guaranteed. Certainly, the Chinese leadership does not want to go to war because they know how costly it would be.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, in recent discussions with foreign leaders, has laid down two red lines which would trigger military action, a declaration of independence, or the stationing of foreign troops on the island.

Formally ending the “One China” policy comes dangerously close to the first red line.

If Rudd is to offer his expert counsel to Washington on behalf of Canberra, on the instructions of his ministers of course, Taiwan might be a good place to start.


Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.