West must be calibrated in responding to China’s escalation on Taiwan
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West must be calibrated in responding to China’s escalation on Taiwan

The US and its allies have a tricky diplomatic job of deterring a determined China without raising the temperature even higher. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

“Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” That’s what Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore last weekend. He said Russia’s aggression had changed security perceptions for many countries around the world.

Kishida didn’t say the quiet part out loud: Taiwan was most likely to fall victim to such a conflict in East Asia. But he didn’t need to be explicit. Anxiety about Taiwan loomed over most discussions during the regional dialogue.

Regional states are looking to both the United States and China for reassurance that the region would not be plunged into war between nuclear powers. Most of the concern is directed at China as it escalates its military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi went a step further than his prime minister, reprimanding China – “the protagonist” – for having “never renounced the potential use of force against Taiwan”.

But the US has also been the subject of anxiety. President Joe Biden recently said that the US is committed to defending Taiwan, potentially a departure from existing ambiguous policy. This rhetoric has been perceived in some nations as a unilateral and reckless shift in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

Some in Washington have clearly got the message. The mission of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore was to reassure. The readout of the meeting between Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe emphasised the US request to improve crisis communications between the two militaries, reducing the risk of an accident.

The unjustified invasion of Ukraine is a powerful reminder that waiting until the first shot is fired is far too late.

Austin’s speech recited existing US Taiwan policy – perhaps a corrective to his president’s earlier remarks. While criticising China’s provocative and destabilising behaviour, he made it explicit that the US did not support Taiwan’s independence.

He said the US was working with competitors and friends alike to strengthen guardrails against conflict. Lines of communication with China’s leaders needed to be fully open to avoid miscalculation.

This was welcomed by a region in need of reassurance that all parties would do whatever they could to avoid a catastrophic war. There was also a hint of marketing in the message – if the unthinkable happens, the subtext reads, it won’t be Washington’s fault.

But the Chinese defence minister was not in the mood for reassurance.

Outrage about Ukraine, thinly veiled references to unsafe behaviour by Chinese pilots, and calls for crisis communications did little to mute Wei’s tone. Nor did the plea from Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles for “reassuring statecraft” from China.

Wei reminded the audience of the dangers of underestimating China’s resolve and ability. Should Taiwan attempt independence, he said, “we will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.”

He ignored all agency of the Taiwanese people, claiming their elected government consisted simply of puppets of those who wanted to contain China. He blamed the US not only for instability in the region but for the war in Ukraine.

Responses must be carefully calibrated

China’s audience is not middle powers in the region, where its economic and political influence is felt on the ground, but the US and its allies. Beijing seeks to deter, not reassure.

This puts the US, Australia and other partners in a tough spot. They must match China’s escalation to present a credible deterrent. But these responses need to be carefully calibrated to avoid the temperature rising further.

Some of these measures are falling in place. The US and Taiwan have just announced a new trade initiative, and high-level Americans are visiting Taipei on a weekly basis. AUKUS may contribute, but Australia could do much more in the economic and diplomatic space, including support for Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Closer economic ties with Taiwan would benefit Australia, with the added bonus of being less likely to unnerve regional partners than military platforms and security partnerships.

‘It must be a pre-emptive way’

China’s goals for Taiwan are clear, even if its timelines and tactics are not. It still seems more likely that China will seek to coerce Taiwan into submission, rather than invade the island.

But there’s no doubt that the People’s Liberation Army is developing the capability to make invasion a plausible last resort.

There are few parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan. But the unjustified invasion of Ukraine is a powerful reminder that waiting until the first shot is fired is far too late.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, delivering a video address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, was clear about the lessons to be learned.

“We must not leave them behind at the mercy of another country which is more powerful in financial terms, in territorial terms and in terms of equipment,” Zelensky said in response to a question about Taiwan.

“And therefore, if there is a way out diplomatically, we need to use the diplomatic way. But it must be a pre-emptive way, not the one that comes after the war has started.”

A way out diplomatically for Taiwan seems remote at this stage. But Zelensky’s message is a powerful one: that all efforts need to be made now, rather than when Chinese invasion forces start massing in Fujian.

Both superpowers spent last weekend talking about Taiwan. Both are still having completely different conversations, with different audiences. Dialogue is better than its absence, but the region is heading for much more dangerous waters.

Areas of expertise: China’s domestic politics; public opinion polling; human rights; Australian foreign policy; Taiwan; Indo-Pacific strategy