Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is meeting with US House Speaker McCarthy before travelling on to Latin America, and European states like the Czech Republic, Lithuania and the United Kingdom are continuing to deepen political engagement with Taiwan.
At the same time, we’re getting another round of fire and brimstone from Chinese state media and foreign Ministry spokespeople threatening others for daring to talk or meet with President Tsai. China’s military is ratcheting up their military intimidation around Taiwan. And in the dance for diplomatic recognition, Beijing has convinced Honduras to switch, while outgoing Micronesian president Panuelo has raised shifting back to recognising Taiwan.
Out of all this, it’s important for Australia’s public debate on Taiwan to understand what’s at stake if Beijing succeeds in isolating Taiwan and in using a combination of propaganda and military intimidation to set the conditions for it to act unopposed against the people of Taiwan.
One simple outcome of isolation would be to make a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more likely, with a broader war being a disturbingly credible consequence.
This is made more real because of the drive Xi Jinping seems to have brought to Chinese efforts to control Taiwan. And there’s a personal element here for Xi: achieving this historic goal of the Chinese Communist Party during his time in leadership would catapult him beyond Mao in the Party pantheon.
If China looks more likely to fight a war over Taiwan, some observers have said that the United States has fewer core interests in any Taiwan crisis than Beijing and so won’t fight over Taiwan – and they also tell us that if the US has no core interests there, Australia and other US allies have less.
This belief, unfortunately, aligns well two key planks of the narrative that Beijing seeks to promote: its relentless determination to “reunify” the island with the mainland by force if necessary, and its portrayal of US power as unreliable or weak.
So, why is Taiwan a core security and political issue for Australia, as it is for the United States and partners like South Korea and Japan? There are four key reasons: geography, the fate of 24 million people living in a democracy, control of foundational elements of our digital world, and lastly, the strategic effect of a successful Chinese invasion.
On geography, by remaining outside Beijing’s control, Taiwan’s strategic location and size matters. It complicates the Chinese military’s ability to project power and provides advantages to Beijing’s potential adversaries during a conflict. China’s military controlling and using Taiwan as a base would undercut Japanese and South Korean security and help the Chinese military oppose US access to and cooperation with these allies. This would be detrimental to Australian security interests and to the stability of Northeast Asia.
In simple human terms, Taiwan is an island of around 23 million people in the Indo-Pacific that serves as an example to 1.4 billion mainland Chinese that a democratic system of government is possible for them. If an island democracy of 23 million is not significant enough for the United States, Australia and other partners to help protect, then why would Australia have any confidence that allies and partners would help defend Australia?
If Beijing were to invade Taiwan successfully, US inaction would profoundly undercut US power and show that America and its allies and partners—including Australia—cannot act together to secure important common interests in the face of Chinese action.
And Taiwan is a critical source of high technology, including much of the global production capacity for semiconductors, mainly because of the leadership of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation. If controlled by Beijing, Taiwan’s advantages would tip the military, technological, and economic power balance in China’s favour and close enduring gaps in the Chinese economy and state’s technological capability. ‘Digital decoupling’ would accelerate, but in ways not to Australia or other liberal democracies’ advantage.
Lastly, analysts who assert that Taiwan is strategically insignificant to US and allied strategy and power in the Indo-Pacific are eerily reminiscent of those who back in the early 2010s dismissed the importance of Chinese island-building in the South China Sea as “just a pile of rocks” or “targets.”
The strategic effect of China’s island-building and development of Chinese military capabilities in the South China Sea, combined with the ineffectual response from claimant states, Australia, the United States, and other like-minded partners, has increased Chinese power in North and Southeast Asia. Taiwan is a much more significant piece of real estate than any of these rocklets.
As we see this new round of Taiwan reaching out to partners in our region and also in Europe, accompanied by threats from Beijing, it’s sensible to think what Australian politicians and officials might do to help prevent China from politically isolating and demoralising Taiwan and its people.
It’s important to signal Australia’s clear interests in the status of Taiwan not being changed by force – as our government has. But it’s at least as important to work on deterrence strategies and plans with its partners, while increasing political, economic and people-to-people engagement with the like-minded, vibrant democracy in Taipei and with Taiwan’s people.
Australia’s public debate uncritically repeating Beijing’s narratives or getting side-tracked on whether domestic voices are simply stoking anxiety is time taken away from working to understand what’s at stake — and what can be done to make Beijing’s use of force against the people of Taiwan less likely.
This article was first published by the Epoch Times on 5 April 2023.