Australia’s ‘China debate’: Time to end domestic politicking and focus on Xi’s destabilising words and actions
19 May 2021|

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong has criticised the government over public discussion of the potential for a war with China starting over Taiwan, characterising it as the government seeking domestic political advantage.

Even though Wong’s speech at a Canberra book launch included protestations of structural bipartisanship, it’s a risky and unfortunate path to take at a time when Australia desperately needs a cohesive national policy on China.

It’s been hugely valuable for Australia that the big decisions that have protected Australian interests in managing the now obvious risks in our engagement with China have been backed by both sides of politics. They include:

  • Excluding ‘high-risk’ vendors from the 5G network,
  • strengthening foreign investment review from a national security perspective,
  • requiring transparency of funding sources and relationships with foreign powers from those involved in public debate and political influence,
  • standing against Xi Jinping’s mass-scale human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, plus his open militarisation of the South China Sea after committing not to do so in 2015, and
  • ending Victoria’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Parliament has also been strongly behind resisting China’s economic coercion of Australia in multiple trade sectors—so far affecting barley, wheat, coal, wine, lobsters and lumber, and now also including suspension of the ministerial-level strategic economic dialogue.

This clarity in parliament has helped Australia to be resilient as we continue the hard long-term work of reducing the importance of the China market to Australia, and so reducing Beijing’s coercive leverage.

And it’s not just the government and opposition that support this policy direction, it’s the majority of the Australian public, as shown by last year’s Lowy poll, which is in line with a much broader international collapse in populations’ views of China under Xi.

The idea that discussion of a potential conflict between China and other nations—including the US and allies like Australia—if Beijing uses its military to seek to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force is all about domestic politics, though, is wrong.

It’s wrong because this line of thinking ignores some basic realities.

Xi has changed the Chinese government’s longstanding policy that Taiwan is an issue to be resolved ‘by future generations’, and has instead said that Taiwan now is a problem that should not be passed down from one generation to the next.

Last year, he called on the People’s Liberation Army to focus on preparing for war and visited numerous military units. One was the PLA’s marine corps, which has a primary role of conducting amphibious assaults against islands. He exhorted them to prepare for war and to focus on being able to use force against Taiwan. In January, he issued a mobilisation order requiring the entire armed forces to ‘focus on war preparedness and to be primed to fight at any second’.

Xi has continued the PLA modernisation program, which has a first priority on building the PLA to take Taiwan by force.

He also ended the only credible path to a peaceful unification between Taiwan and the mainland when he ended the ‘one country, two systems’ model in Hong Kong—the only viable model that Taiwanese people might have considered for peaceful unification.

And incursions by PLA ships and aircraft across the mid-point of the Taiwan Strait and into Taiwanese airspace are at record levels in 2021, even against the high benchmark of the past four years.

These same reasons are why Taiwan’s security has been on the agenda for multiple international meetings—like the US–China meeting in Alaska, the latest US–Japan meeting and this month’s G7 foreign ministers’ meeting.

This combination of actions by Xi and the PLA make it entirely reasonable—and necessary—to be open with the Australian people about the risks of conflict. In a calm, sober and measured way, certainly, but calmness doesn’t mean lack of clarity or silence.

We also hear that mentioning the very idea of conflict plays into Beijing’s hands. However, not naming a problem always complicates solving it. So not discussing the risk of conflict in light of Beijing’s actions will simply make acting to deter Beijing much harder.

Deterring Xi from taking another big risk—as he did over Hong Kong—requires cooperative multilateral planning and actions to demonstrate the costs to China from seeking to change Taiwan’s status by force.

We should not turn this grave international situation into a domestic political issue that divides parliament on partisan lines.

The good news here is that Wong’s speech committed to the structural elements of Australia’s China policy set out above. And it’s also refreshing that Wong recognises, unlike numerous former political figures, that the policy that worked for decades can’t work with the China we now have under Xi.

The bad news is this ‘structural bipartisanship’ is wrapped in Labor’s own domestic political strategy. From Wong’s speech, this includes attacking Prime Minister Scott Morrison over former US President Donald Trump, policy on Jerusalem and, on China, both the prime minister’s recent confusion around ‘one country, two systems’, and, repeatedly, over words used by Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo to staff in an Anzac Day message.

Real bipartisanship on China policy is needed from both sides of politics to avoid creating seams for a strategically focused Chinese state to exploit.

Under Trump, the US reasserted support for Taiwan through commitments made when Washington recognised the People’s Republic of China and sought closer government-to-government and other contact with Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act. Since taking office, President Joe Biden has continued this.

The US stepped up the military arms it was selling to Taiwan under Trump and this is likely to continue under Biden.

There is indeed, as Wong says, a debate about the US ending its policy of ambiguity on whether it would necessarily act militarily to defend Taiwan if China attacked it—but that debate is driven by whether the current situation requires even more clarity about US commitments to preserve Taiwan’s current status.

The key US military commander who would deal with a Taiwan conflict, Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson, has sought urgent funding from Congress to increase the US military’s deterrent power. He has testified to Congress about his concern that the PLA is getting increasingly confident in its ability to seize Taiwan by force.

There’s little doubt that the US understands the strategic interests at stake in defending Taiwan and providing very credible deterrence to prevent Xi from ordering the PLA to act. The Biden administration has reiterated the US core position that Taiwan’s status should not be changed by force. That’s Australia’s (and many other nations’) longstanding policy too. It’s just not true that somehow Australian policy is out in front of allies and partners.

If the current domestic politicking is simply electoral positioning, then we must press leaders on both sides of politics—and at state and territory levels—to realise that there are more important national interests at stake that must trump these narrower political interests. And, after realising this, they must all speak accordingly.

More structural policy agreement and articulation is in all our interests, as is more clarity about Chinese policies and directions, instead of fevered domestic political introspection. That’s pretty clearly what the population expects at this difficult time in Australia’s history.