Taiwan Flashpoint: What Australia Can Do to Stop the Coming Taiwan Crisis

Taiwan Flashpoint: What Australia Can Do to Stop the Coming Taiwan Crisis

Australia should advocate for more robust crisis avoidance, management and confidence-building, rather than focusing on our alliance obligations or lying low due to the fragile state of Sino–Australian relations. The costs and risks of a Taiwan conflict significantly outweigh those of taking such measures.

Policy Recommendation 1: The Australian Government should advocate for more robust crisis management and risk avoidance mechanisms

Elsewhere in Asia, measures are increasingly being put in place to reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation and for managing strategic crises. Most headway has been made on the Korean Peninsula, where the leaders of the North and South can now communicate directly via a crisis hotline. As part of the 2018 inter-Korean peace process, Seoul and Pyongyang have established no-fly zones along their shared land border and now avoid potentially provocative military exercises within the de-militarized zone dissecting the two countries. After a decade of sometimes difficult negotiations, China and Japan have also recently introduced a new ‘communication mechanism’ to reduce the risk of accidental clashes between military ships and aircraft operating in the East China Sea. This includes a crisis hotline to facilitate communication between senior Chinese and Japanese defence officials.

Such measures are missing in the cross-strait relationship. A decade ago, when the more pro-Chinese KMT last held power, hopes were high that they could be put in place. During the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (2008–2016), Taiwan signed more than 20 economic agreements — a confidence-building measure of sorts — with the mainland. At Ma and Xi’s historic November 2015 meeting in Singapore, the two leaders even agreed to establish a new cross-strait crisis hotline which was then used by senior officials from both sides[48] on at least four occasions in early 2016. But the Chinese side is reportedly no longer answering this hotline, following its cross-strait freeze after Tsai’s inauguration.[49]

Reactivating the cross-strait hotline would be a good start in assisting de-escalation and crisis management. But more is needed. Beijing and Taipei should also agree on more formal protocols for communicating during a major crisis, including back-up procedures should these primary channels fail or become interrupted by the use of military force.

Cross-strait crisis management currently relies on unspecified, informal channels of communication. As Tsai noted in her first foreign media interview after becoming president: “we have always had diverse channels of communications across the strait. These include not just official communications but also people-to-people contacts.”[50]

Informal diplomatic channels certainly have their place, as shown most famously by exchanges between the Soviet intelligence officer Alexander Fomin and US diplomatic correspondent John Scalie during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.[51] Yet, as in a game of Chinese whispers, messages can also get lost or confused in the heat of crisis. In the early 1950s, for instance, Washington’s failure to correctly interpret Chinese anxieties being conveyed through Indian intermediaries resulted in an expansion of the Korean War.[52]

China and America would also benefit from more clearly defined crisis management protocols. Their agreements to date — including a November 2014 memorandum of understanding for rules of behaviour during air and maritime encounters — are focused predominantly at the military-to-military level. But history shows that civilian and civil-military interactions are equally, if not more, important in a crisis. The development and implementation of mechanisms for managing Sino–American civilian and civil–military interactions during a Taiwan crisis are critical.

Policy Recommendation 2: Australia should collaborate with other like-minded, trade-dependent nations such as Japan and Singapore to advocate risk-reduction measures

Canberra should not advocate for these risk reduction measures alone. Beijing is unlikely to respond favourably to a unilateral proposal. Australia could even be singled out for coercive treatment should Beijing resent Canberra’s interference in what it regards as an internal matter.

Japan is an attractive partner. In a Taiwan conflict, Tokyo, like Australia, would be placed in an unenviable position between its leading trading partner and its longstanding strategic ally. United States military bases in Japan would be an obvious target for Beijing in the opening stages of a Taiwan conflict. The increasingly integrated nature of US and Japanese military systems — such as the string of underwater sensors running from the Ryukyu Islands across to Taiwan, which are critical to tracking Chinese submarines — also increase the risk of Tokyo being dragged into a conflict.[53]

Singapore is another strong possibility as a partner given its close relationship not only with Australia, but also China, Taiwan and the United States. Singapore positions itself as an even-handed regional player, as indicated most recently by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s May 2019 keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, in which he was openly critical of both China and the United States.[54] Singapore also has a track record of creative, activist diplomacy, as evidenced by its hosting of the June 2018 summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Coordination with these and other regional governments will not be easy. Each one perceives the potential threat posed by China’s growing power and influence — and the possibility of a Taiwan conflict — in subtly different ways. But Canberra should not seek to progress this initiative in the absence of support from at least one other regional government.

Policy Recommendation 3: Australian advocacy should initially be low key 

A senior Australian public servant, such as the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), could test risk reduction proposals with prospective regional partners. Meanwhile, the government should establish a small task force to identify the most appropriate crisis management and avoidance mechanisms for a contemporary Taiwan contingency. This task force should draw upon DFAT, Department of Defence, and Australian Defence Force (ADF) expertise.

Key to Australia’s success in shaping the Cambodian peace process during the early 1990s were the soundings that then-DFAT Deputy Secretary Michael Costello took, at Foreign Minister Gareth Evans’s instruction, in thirteen other countries during a three week period in December 1989.[55] Low-key proposals kept initially at the departmental level have the advantage of being easier to retreat from should other regional governments not be supportive. The contrasting case is the Rudd government’s ill-fated ‘Asia–Pacific community’ proposal, advanced initially by the prime minister in a major speech and then belatedly followed up with regional consultations led by foreign affairs grandee Richard Woolcott.

Like Costello, who subsequently went on to head the department, current DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson is an impeccably qualified candidate. She is widely respected and appropriately experienced, having served as head of Australia’s mission in Taiwan (from 2000–2005), as ambassador to China (2011–2015) and as foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (2015–16).

The next Taiwan Strait crisis could, however, play out very differently from previous episodes. The globalisation of the Hong Kong crisis provides a pointer. Previously, in a world where leaders and their governments could not communicate via mobile phone nor make their views known publicly via social media, they did not face the same time pressures and could make their decisions away from the public eye. Such crises were often less confusing and complex as a consequence. An Australian Government task force should therefore consider whether traditional crisis management and avoidance mechanisms remain fit to withstand the potentially quite different pressures of a contemporary Taiwan crisis or whether other new or adapted arrangements might be required. If so, what might these be?

Crisis management and avoidance mechanisms are typically not controversial. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union developed and used such arrangements, most famously in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis when a high-level hotline connecting the Kremlin and the Pentagon was established.[56]

Nonetheless, Australian advocacy of such measures will not be without risk — particularly on an issue that Beijing sees as a strictly internal matter. When the incoming Howard government was, along with Japan, the only other nation from the region to publicly support President Bill Clinton’s deployment of aircraft carriers during the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, it resulted in what one analyst has described as “arguably the most abysmal year in the history of Australia–China relations”.[57]

Calls for Australia to assume a more active and assertive foreign policy — reminiscent of that pursued by the Hawke–Keating government of the late 1980s and early 1990s — have grown louder in recent years.[58] This sentiment has now been picked up by both sides of Australian politics. In his October 2019 Lowy Institute Lecture, for instance, Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted: “Australia cannot be an indifferent bystander to these events which impact our livelihoods, our safety and our sovereignty. We must, as we have done previously, cultivate, marshal and bring our influence to bear to protect and promote our national interests.”[59] In a similar vein, in a September 2019 speech delivered in Jakarta, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong observed: “countries of our region must do more than simply navigate the slipstream. We must do what we can to shape the outcome we want.”[60]

Drawing inspiration from the Menzies government’s diplomacy during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954–55, there is arguably no more pressing issue today where Australian foreign policy activism is warranted. Lying low may seem the more prudent course, particularly given the degree of difficulty involved and the present fragile state of Australia–China relations. But should a Taiwan conflict erupt, with the severe consequences that such a serious conflict would inflict on Australia’s economy and security, this country’s leaders will wish they had tried harder to prevent it.

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