As Chinese bombers fly over Taiwanese air space in what Forbes magazine describes as a ‘Dress rehearsal for war’, it’s about time Australia stopped pretending that its sixth-largest export trading partner does not exist. For almost 50 years, Australia, in line with the United Nations, has not recognised Taiwan as a sovereign nation (like us, an island democracy of about 25 million people and strategically located in our region 160 kms off the Chinese coast). So we have no formal diplomatic relations, no trade agreement (unlike New Zealand), and maintain the fiction that our long-standing diplomatic exchanges are only ‘representative’ offices. Yet the Australian government is very happy not only to do business with this ‘non-existent’ nation, but DFAT is busily encouraging Australian firms to increase their export efforts beyond the existing $13 billion a year market (mainly for iron ore, natural gas, coal and rural products) which provides a healthy positive trade balance against the $5 billion we import from Taiwan. And Taiwan’s strategic $10 billion investment in Australia includes a 30 per cent stake in Fortescue Mining’s multi-billion-dollar Iron Bridge magnetite pellet project in WA. So the military threat is not the only cause for worry posed by the latest instalment of the China-Taiwan stand-off; Australia has substantial economic skin in these war games. At a time when China is undertaking an undeclared trade war against Australian exports (except for those like iron ore it cannot do without), the potential loss of Taiwan if it were absorbed into mainland China, would do us economic damage.
There is nothing new about China’s intention to ‘return’ Taiwan to Chinese rule. It is the final item in the undoing of the humiliations China suffered at the hands of the West. As her government’s Global Times said last week: ‘China is no longer a country that can easily be bullied like the China it was 100 years ago. The days are also long gone when Western aggressors could occupy a country for hundreds of years by simply setting up a few cannons on a coast in the East. So if they ever provoke China again, they are bound to be countered promptly. They will lose more than they might gain.’
After the 1949 communist victory in the civil war, the defeated Chiang Kai- shek government moved (along with a few million followers and a heap of historic Chinese treasures) to what had previously been Formosa during the 50 years of Japanese occupation that ended with Japan’s defeat in 1945. A resurgent China has set 2049 as the deadline for the return of its ‘province’, in direct conflict with not only the clear mandate to remain separate from China given in last year’s landslide election victory to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, but also US undertakings to protect Taiwan.
With the Chinese military imbued with the concept that independence for Taiwan means war, with new ‘alarming’ powers given to Chairman Xi (to decide on matters of defence, war and peace) and with Beijing’s disillusionment over its shattered expectations of a better (and more permissive) relationship with the US under President Biden, this combination, according to the US National Interest magazine, ‘creates a particularly dangerous phase in cross-Strait relations’.
‘Beijing’, it writes, is ‘upping the pressure because they realise Washington policy in support of Taipei will not change under Biden, dashing Chinese hopes that a Democrat government would overturn what China regarded as an aberration in US behaviour under President Trump… it is becoming clear that the new administration’s policy toward China and Taiwan will not be as permissive as it was under President Obama…. Xi Jinping’s emergence and consolidation of powers has upended longstanding US assessments of China, deepening an increasingly bipartisan view that China was becoming more authoritarian and a destabilising factor in international affairs’.
Accusations by Republicans that Biden would be ‘soft’ on China put additional pressure on the White House to prove such detractors wrong while, in Congress, support for Taiwan is at an historic high. Already, the Biden administration has issued this strong assurance: ‘We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region—and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan. The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan. The United States maintains its longstanding commitments. We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.’
So China naturally expressed its displeasure when, on January 20, Taiwan’s ‘representative’ in the US was officially invited to the swearing in of a US President for the first time in more than 40 years. Its response to what was a clear indication of a continuation under Biden of the Trump administration’s hard line on China, was to send bombers accompanied by fighters into Taiwanese air space. When the new Biden administration then expressed concern at ‘China’s on-going attempts to intimidate its neighbours including Taiwan’ and urged Beijing ‘to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan’, it sent 15 more the following day and 15 more the day after.
The Morrison government will soon be presented with an opportunity to go at least some of the way to correct the sham of its Taiwan relationship when the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence, and Trade reports back to the government on last October’s request to inquire into expanding membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is currently seeking submissions on potential new TPP members and will examine whether the TPP can be a vehicle not only to increase trade, but also to diversify our trading relationships. Taiwan, which is currently excluded from this 11-member trade bloc, is making a strong bid for Australian support for its inclusion. It would clearly be in Australia’s economic interests to get closer toTaiwan in a free-trade setting. But on past form Australia is open to being bullied by its major single customer (China, with 35 per cent of all our exports) into ignoring the Taiwanese request.
Reality, however, may be forced upon us. There is little doubt that Chinese destabilising will provide an early test of US commitments to Taiwan. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings has said: ‘Whatever Biden does about Taiwan, he will expect Japan and Australia to be there.’ But can we, and Taiwan, feel confident that Biden will be there?
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