Taiwan, a longtime source of tension between the US and China, could prove to be the driving force behind future conflict. And, as expert Alan Dupont writes, the ANZUS Treaty could force Australia into battle alongside its longtime ally and against its largest trading partner.
As US-China rivalry worsens, Taiwan is considered the most likely catalyst for a conflict between the two global superpowers. Such a clash has the potential to draw in Australia as a US ally and signatory to the ANZUS Treaty, which has long underpinned Australia’s security.
ANZUS was largely a response to Australian fears of a resurgent Japan and the spread of communism in Asia. But it was never invoked during the Korean or Vietnam wars because neither was seen as constituting an ‘armed attack’ on an ANZUS signatory under Article IV of the treaty. There are three reasons why the next Taiwan crisis will be different.
First, in previous crises — the last being in 1996 — China didn’t have the capacity to credibly threaten Taiwan’s existence because the US, Taipei’s protector, had overwhelming military superiority. That’s no longer the case. The military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has shifted decisively in favour of China. After a massive, decadal military build-up, a comprehensively modernised People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can now inflict major damage on any US force sent to support Taiwan.
Second, if a Taiwan conflict turned into a full-blown military confrontation between China and the US, Beijing would almost certainly target the US homeland with a range of non-nuclear weapons, including cyber and hypersonic weapons, all of which would constitute a prima facie case for invoking ANZUS.
Third, the dramatic deterioration in Australia-China relations and Beijing’s determination to punish Australia economically means that in any future Taiwan crisis China would probably target northern defence bases and infrastructure such as Darwin port, RAAF Base Tindal and the Australia-US joint defence facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs. It’s also conceivable that Beijing could threaten Australia with nuclear weapons. The aim would be to prevent, or disrupt, any effort by the US and Australia to intervene on the side of Taiwan. A PLA strike against Australia would clearly fall within the scope of Article IV.
Determining whether a Chinese attack would formally trigger ANZUS might be the least of Canberra’s problems. The last thing the government wants is to be caught up in a war between its major ally and its trading partner. The whole thrust of recent Australian foreign policy has been to prevent such a conflict occurring because of its potentially calamitous impact on our prosperity and security.
Sailing to the rescue of Taiwan would risk severing already strained ties with China and make Australia a target for PLA missiles. But refusing to support Taiwan would anger Washington, calling into question our commitment to ANZUS and the whole alliance network that underpins our security.
The growing concern about Taiwan reflects several worrying trends. Decades of intermittent attempts to bridge longstanding differences between Beijing and Taipei have failed. President Xi Jinping has made clear his determination to reunify Taiwan, by force if necessary. He’s now aged 68, so time to realise his dream is running out.
Taiwanese increasingly reject reunification with China. In a recent poll, less than 1% supported rapid unification and 60% opposed China’s ‘one country, two systems’ model. Some 75% of those polled agreed with the statement that their nation is already an independent entity. As anti-China sentiment in the US has hardened, calls to provide unambiguous guarantees of US support for Taiwan against China are growing louder. There’s a widespread misperception that the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act already provides an ironclad US security commitment to Taiwan. But the Act states only that the US shall ‘make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity’.
Furthermore, any decision to defend Taiwan isn’t the sole prerogative of the president. It requires congressional consent. If the longstanding policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ is replaced by an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan, a major confrontation between the US and China becomes more probable and perilous. Some Western intelligence agencies reportedly believe that there’s a 50% chance of a serious conflict over Taiwan before the end of the decade. Pentagon war gaming over the past few years shows the US losing in any fight with China over Taiwan.
All this poses a policy dilemma for Australia. Xi knows that, once he commits to military action, failure to achieve his Holy Grail of reunification with Taiwan could be terminal for his rule.
He’ll deploy every instrument of China’s formidable state power to prevent other countries siding with Taiwan. Beijing’s threats will be amplified by Australian voices urging Canberra to stay out of the conflict to avoid reprisals that would further damage trade and send the China-Australia relationship into a long-lasting deep freeze. There’s also the real possibility of significant Australian casualties should we deploy ships and aircraft to the fight.
None of that should dissuade us from a robust defence of Taiwan should China decide to impose its will on a free people by force of arms or other coercive measures designed to bring about the island’s economic or financial collapse. To do otherwise would be an indictment of Australia’s support for a rules-based international order and democratic norms, not the least of which is the right of people to elect their preferred government.
Strategically, the loss of Taiwan would be a serious setback for the alliance. Taiwan is the linchpin in a chain of islands that constrains China’s ability to dominate the whole of the Western Pacific. Its fall would enable the PLA to isolate Japan, push the US back towards the Central Pacific and consolidate its hold over the northern approaches to Australia and the critical Strait of Malacca, which is the gateway to the world’s most important trade route. China could also gain access to Taiwan’s world-leading semiconductor technology, offsetting the one clear advantage that the US holds in their race for technological and military supremacy.
Ritual denunciation of China or a token military contribution to Taiwan’s defence in the form of a frigate or surveillance aircraft won’t make much difference to the outcome. It would merely bring down China’s wrath upon us without measurably helping Taiwan or reassuring allies that Australia can be relied upon in a crisis.
The best way of preserving the peace is to deter China from military action. That will require a strengthened alliance, more effective defence spending by the region’s democracies — including Taiwan — and a willingness to impose prohibitive costs on Beijing for any attempt to impose its rule over a non-consenting people.
But we shouldn’t focus only on the conventional military threat to Taiwan. China is a master of hybrid warfare and will use economic, financial and diplomatic coercion to isolate and strangle Taiwan into submission.
The US and Australia should leverage ANZUS to design a comprehensive menu of non-military responses that other countries in the region and beyond — even those fearful of Chinese retribution — could support. The goal of those policies should be to pressure Beijing into accepting that its interests are best served by the peaceful, rather than forceful, reunification of Taiwan.
Alan Dupont is Non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute and the Atlantic Council, adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales, and has been CEO of the Cognoscenti Group since 2016.
Banner image: Taipei skyline at sunset. Credit: travelwild, Shutterstock.
This article comes from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's new book, "ANZUS at 70: The past, present and future of the alliance", edited by Patrick Walters.
 See Michael Mazza,' Congressional initiatives shifting US towards strategic clarity', American Enterprise Institute, 29 July 2020, online.