Let’s not forget Taiwan as we kowtow to China on trade
USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea April 6 2021

USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea April 06 2021. US Defense Department image.

Written by

Peter Jennings

In the skies above the South China Sea last Friday a Chinese People’s Liberation Army J-16 fighter aircraft flew perilously close to the nose of an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft.

The US Defence Department said the “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” forced the RC-135 to fly through the PLA jet’s wake turbulence. Cockpit video shows the aircrew bouncing as the J-16 turns for another approach.

A similar incident happened in December last year. On that occasion a PLA jet flew within 6m of an American aircraft’s nose.

The US view, which Australia shares when it operates in the region, is that it “was conducting safe and routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace, in accordance with international law”.

The G7 countries stated on May 20 “there is no legal basis for China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea” but Beijing aggressively asserts its exclusive military control of this sea and airspace. At some point an aircraft will be downed or a ship sunk. The region will be flung into a crisis where luck or the absence of it will determine whether we face a conflict or a military standoff.

This puts in context the Albanese government’s call to maintain the status quo on China and Taiwan. To quote the Prime Minister: “The role of peace and security and stability in the region is advanced by having a very clear position, which is support for the status quo of no unilateral action by either side.”

Xi Jinping’s military and intelligence establishment is working as hard as it can to overturn the status quo. China’s tactics are evident in every speech Xi delivers, where he calls on the PLA to prepare for war, in the frantic pace of military growth and in the frequent incidents in the East and South China seas. In this tinderbox environment, calling for the status quo while claiming that Australia has stabilised its relationship with Beijing is not masterful diplomacy.

We are hostage to the next military incident, where a close call may turn into an overnight crisis. Beijing’s strategists would be happy with an Australian policy approach that understated China’s threat to regional stability to deliver Albanese a successful visit later this year. But calling for the status quo doesn’t strengthen deterrence or stop China from positioning to intimidate or attack Taiwan and to build a pattern of pushing the democracies out of the South China Sea.

The recent Defence Strategic Review makes an urgent case to strengthen an Australian Defence Force “not fit for purpose” by adding missiles and weapons designed to reinforce Australian deterrence.

But the DSR is a casualty of delivering a temporary budget surplus. There is no new money for defence and therefore little ability to up-gun the ADF. A military strategy “fitted for but not with” funding deters no one.

Taiwan is an immediate casualty of Australia’s “small target” approach to China. As recently as the September 2021 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations meeting, the Morrison and Biden administrations “stated their intent to strengthen ties with Taiwan, which is a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries”. No Australian minister has visited Taiwan since trade minister Craig Emerson in 2012. Taiwan was our fifth largest export market in 2021-22.

Senior Defence and security officials cannot visit Taipei because of our hardline, self-imposed restrictive interpretation of the one-China policy adopted in 1972.

Few countries understand China’s military thinking better than Taiwan. We run the risk of being called on to defend one of the few genuinely successful liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific without having any substantive military or intelligence relationship. If Australia was serious about reducing the risk of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, the best way to do this would be to help Taiwan strengthen its own military forces. The bilateral relationship needs to be rethought.

A start would be to send Trade Minister Don Farrell to Taipei to discuss Taiwan’s proposed membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s also time to reopen discussion of a free-trade agreement. The absence of one with our fifth largest export market is, to use a technical trade term, crazy.

Second, the Albanese government needs to allow meaningful classified exchanges on our strategic outlook. This must go beyond current diplomatic channels to include intelligence and national security agencies.

Third, Taiwan has much to offer in learning about how to strengthen national resilience, protect critical infrastructure and resist Beijing’s disinformation campaigns that try to manipulate political discussions. We should share knowledge about how the two countries have struggled successfully against Chinese coercion.

This need not get in the way of Albanese’s visit to Beijing. But our enthusiasm to sell China lobsters should not hand Xi a permanent veto on how we engage with an important trading partner, liberal democracy and vital contributors to our strategic balance. A reimagined partnership with Taiwan offers the Albanese government a chance to take a step that previous Australian governments have lacked the foresight to achieve.

This is not about shoring up a floundering status quo but building a new form of regional deterrence. In turn, that would shape a platform for more confidently dealing with China.

The article was originally published in the Australian on 01 June 2023.