This past weekend, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton suggested that a conflict with China over Taiwan could not be discounted. However, as Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz wrote some 200 years ago, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”.
Despite the inappropriate and unnecessary warnings by Mike Pezzullo, near term conflict between America and China, whilst possible is unlikely. What we are more likely witnessing is the Chinese leadership testing the resolve of a 78 year old American President who is showing signs of cognitive decline.
An independent Taiwan is a significant near term national security imperative for America, Japan and Australia. For America, Taiwan is an essential source of silicon chips and regional credibility. For Australia and Japan, the Taiwan Strait is the gateway for a majority of international trade.
The context of White’s comments were his counselling the Australian government not to reflexively follow America into a war with China over Taiwan because of a “real possibility” of war between the two nations. There is always a real possibility of war between America and China. More apt would be the question of what is the likelihood of war between America and China, and when could it occur.
Despite China’s regional aggression, for the near term, America cannot permit Taiwan to fall to China.
Taiwan is the global epicentre of silicon chip manufacturing. It is home to the largest chip manufacturer in the world in TSMC and 25 other silicon chip manufacturers. Earlier this year, a relatively small chip shortage sent large ripples through global supply chains including a resultant shutdown of car production at Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen.
Yet silicon chips are not just key inputs into cars, computers and telecommunication systems. They are also essential for modern military hardware. Planes, submarines, drones, radar systems, naval ships and smart missiles all demand advanced silicon chips. America does not currently have a domestic silicon chip manufacturing capability meaning the loss of chip supply from Taiwan is a significant national security threat. America is seeking to build a domestic silicon chip production capability, but several years lead time is required.
China knows America cannot permit Taiwan to fall suggesting China’s regional belligerence may actually serve a political purpose as von Clausewitz suggested: externally to dissuade Taiwan from pursuing independence actions and domestically to stoke Chinese nationalist sentiment to distract from social and economic pressures on the Chinese Communist Party.
In addition to the pressures of an aging population, China is soon to feel the costs of a post-Covid economic decoupling. Given China’s export centred economic development strategy, including as the basis of the Belt and Road Initiative, even a small reduction in Chinese manufacturing jobs and exports would have a significant negative multiplier effect on the Chinese economy.
Additionally, a kinetic conflict over Taiwan would cause great global economic damage which would disproportionately impact China. China is a significant net importer of food and energy, disruptions to which would cause significant domestic social and economic damage which in turn could pose an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. Taiwan is an American interest today. At some point in the future, the relative strategic importance of Taiwan to America will reduce. Perhaps at that point, China may finally reclaim Taiwan.
In as much as Taiwan is a strategic interest for American today, so is Australia.
Professor White writes “The habit of going to war whenever America does is deeply ingrained in the strategic mindset of our political leaders and their advisers. Often in the past that has made good sense, but not always.” This underplays the reason for Australia frequently following America into conflict.
Much as America has permanent interests, so does Australia. And Australia’s current interests lie in maintaining a military alliance with America. The Australian continent may have golden soil, wealth for toil and be girt by sea, but it is also a sparsely populated vast landmass presenting significant defence challenges.
Following America into wars is not a strategic mindset. It is the price of entry into America’s military hardware market and the price for America’s attention should Australia face external threat. Without both of which Australia would be a natural target for hostile regional actors.
Australia’s defence investment is not in just soldiers, planes and submarines. It is also through a significant diplomatic effort in Washington DC and through hosting strategically important American facilities.
In the 1980s, Australian intelligence services assessed that American installations at North West Cape, Nurrungar and Pine Gap were likely nuclear targets for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While Nurrungar is now closed and technology has made North West Cape less relevant, Pine Gap remains a likely target. Sometimes unfortunately also, it is in Australia’s national interest to follow America into war.
Were there to be conflict between China and America over Taiwan, Australia would have no choice but to follow America, including by ceasing food, energy and iron ore exports to China. Were Australia to not follow and to try to maintain strategic neutrality, we would most likely lose the protection of America’s Pacific defence umbrella exposing Australia to even great threats and risks.
America’s and Australia’s defence preparedness and resolve is essential for preventing armed conflict, but it does not necessarily indicate the eventuality of conflict. Yet paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, Australia may not be interested in a war for Taiwan, but if there was a war for Taiwan, it would be interested in Australia.
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