Why the US alliance remains our best defence

Why the US alliance remains our best defence

Originally published in The Australian


Former foreign minister Bob Carr asserts in the opinion pages of this newspaper that Australia should not get involved in a conflict over Taiwan.

He writes that “loose war talk over Taiwan” risks “sleepwalking” the world towards “the first war between nuclear powers”. The answer is “more spirited diplomacy”, guard rails and off-ramps.

A Taiwan that resembles Hong Kong would be preferable to a nuclear war and our defence force wouldn’t last long in a fight with China.

The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen recently wrote in Inquirer that acquiring nuclear-powered submarines and allowing US bombers to operate from the Tindal air base in the Northern Territory effectively integrates Tindal “into America’s war planning” and makes us a bigger target. This calls into question the security benefits of the alliance.

These are serious critiques that deserve a response. Let’s start with a fact check.

If there were to be a direct military conflict between the US and China over Taiwan it wouldn’t be the first between nuclear powers.

In March 1969, border hostilities broke out between the armed forces of the Soviet Union and China along the Ussuri River in Siberia. Hundreds of soldiers were killed or wounded. Although Moscow deployed nuclear missiles to the area, they were not launched.

Neither were they used in clashes between India and China along their disputed Himalayan border during the past three years. They are unlikely to be used in a Taiwan confrontation for good reason.

A nuclear “balance of terror” has existed ever since the US nuclear weapons monopoly was broken in August 1949, when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. Despite some close calls, notably during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, mutually assured destruction remains an effec­tive deterrent.

Far from engaging in “loose war talk” or “sleep walking” into war, the Albanese government and the Biden administration have been measured and realistic in assessing the risk of conflict over Taiwan.

This has risen alarmingly because of China’s aggressive actions and rhetoric, not because of gratuitous provocations by Australia and the US.

Let’s not forget that providing arms to Taiwan for defensive purposes is mandated by the US congress under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. As Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reminds us, if hard power is abjured, “spirited diplomacy” won’t dissuade China from invading Taiwan. To borrow from US president Teddy Roosevelt, if you want to speak softly you had better carry a big stick.

The problem is that the US is being outmuscled by China in East Asia, which is why we need to rebuild our collective defence capabilities. It is pure sophistry to characterise Australia’s choice as between nuclear war or accepting “a Taiwan that resembles Hong Kong”. The real choice is between supporting the right of people to choose their own form of government against an imposed tyranny. In defending Taiwan’s democracy we defend ours, too, another lesson from Ukraine.

If defending our values doesn’t cut it for domestic critics then they should reflect on the strategic consequences of a successful People’s Liberation Army invasion of Taiwan. Among them would be the loss of a vibrant democracy and the freedoms enjoyed by the island’s 23 million citizens; the real prospect that Japan and South Korea would develop their own nuclear weapons; a dramatic weakening of the US alliance, the only obstacle to a Chinese hegemony in Asia; the likelihood that a successful takeover of Taiwan would embolden China to be even more assertive, risking a wider, global conflict; and the replacement of the rules-based order with a power-based authoritarian order run from Beijing.

If you think this is an exaggeration, then look closely at what is happening to Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party is squeezing the remaining political space of Hong Kong’s people through the application of the draconian national security law. This law empowers Chinese officials to arrest Australians at will and place a bounty on our heads.

The Taiwanese have read the tea leaves, voting repeatedly in favour of a status quo that Beijing is determined to up-end.

One can be in violent agreement with the assessment that the Australian Defence Force is no match for China but come to a completely different conclusion to Carr’s.

Rather than roll over and accept the inevitable, we are doing what overmatched small powers have always done – hedge against threats by building up our defences while allying with like-minded countries to preserve the peace through strength. To characterise this as encouraging war, subordinating ourselves to the war plans of the US or diminishing the value of the US alliance is a complete misreading of the Albanese government’s policy approach and the drivers of our strategy.

It also conveniently ignores how China has destabilised the regional strategic balance by embarking on the largest peacetime military build-up, including a doubling of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

The “we are a big target” argument has flaws of strategic logic and alliance practice. Yes, we are a target. But that is the price we pay for our independence and sovereignty, as does any self-respecting country.

Are China and the US going to change their stance because they fear being targeted? Is this a new national security praxis that should determine our strategy? If so, then we better prepare for an avalanche of threats from adversaries who think we will buckle at the first sign of pressure.

Authoritarian states will always target liberal democracies because they feel threatened by our example. Given a choice, most people will choose to live in open, tolerant and cosmopolitan societies.

The mistaken belief that we immediately snap to attention at the call of the US defies alliance practice and the history of the bilateral relationship. It assumes our policymakers have no agency.

The reality is that successive governments successfully have harnessed US strengths to achieve Australian objectives, as our recent nuclear submarine diplomacy attests. The real problem is that we haven’t done nearly enough to repair our ailing defence force. But that’s a story for another day.


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