Australia’s dangerously inadequate Taiwan policy debate
25 May 2021|

Australia has passed through a baffling period in public and policy debate on China–Taiwan relations. It has been prompted by a tactical step by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force over the last 12 months to engage in flights over the Taiwan Strait and through Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. These have been met by Taiwanese intercepts and have led the United States and other countries to undertake naval exercises around Taiwan and through the strait itself. The US has also signalled clear support for Taiwan through statements, visits and an upgrade of bilateral protocols.

Cross-strait relations are poised at a higher state of activity and tension. It’s almost certain that Beijing is planning another tactical step forward in its actions towards Taiwan.

In Australia, this changed dynamic over 2020 began attracting media attention early this year. News Corp websites have delivered a steady flow of reports about China’s actions in the context of its growing military power and possible conflict with the US. Then, in March and April, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published a number of ostensibly serious analyses on this theme claiming that a US–China war over Taiwan was coming.

These hyperbolic reports and analyses were just part of the already intense debate about Australia–China relations. They created the fertile ground for questions put to Defence Minister Peter Dutton by the ABC on 25 April about the prospects of conflict, which elicited an equivocal response, and for a message by Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo for the commemoration of Anzac Day about a future in which war was again possible.

These comments can be understood and critiqued in isolation and in the context of the changed cross-strait dynamic. But after the weeks of hyperbolic reporting, they sparked an explosion of national media reports and commentary about China and war.

This immediately triggered a political reflex in Australian public life to relitigate political and military history and the pathologies of national identity. A debate ostensibly about Beijing’s tactical actions towards Taiwan turned into one about a national propensity to participate enthusiastically in wars for imperial powers, from World War I to Vietnam and Iraq, which then led to commentaries about the urgent need for an anti-war movement to hold back a warmongering government and military.

Thus, Australia arrived at a debate about the need to stop marching to a war with China, rather than one about reality. It included wild inaccuracies, tendentious argumentation and even offensive presumption. Beijing has no doubt been perplexed. More disenchanting, the people against whom any war would actually be fought by China, the Taiwanese, have been almost wholly erased from Australia’s debate.

Matters were further complicated on 6 May when Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about Taiwan in a radio interview and confused Beijing’s unification formula, ‘one country, two systems’, for Australia’s ‘one China’ policy. He regrettably restated it a week later, an error which led to three notable outcomes.

First, the Australian media for the first time attempted to properly explain exactly what Australia’s ‘one China’ policy is. This is a complex policy area but one notorious for its misrepresentation in reporting and analysis. Second, the opposition entered the debate with criticism of the government. And third, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham sought to tamp down the issue by saying in a press conference that there had been no change to Australia’s policies towards Taiwan.

Even if Birmingham’s statement cannot be read as a definitive Australian government position, the denouement would no doubt have pleased Beijing and greatly disappointed Taipei, which has been looking for stronger signals of support from Australia for some time. Indeed, a case can be made that Australia should, in fact, be considering the parameters of its Taiwan policies in light of Beijing’s escalated military actions.

The whole episode has been a salutary reminder of how ill-prepared Australia’s public debate and policymaking infrastructure actually are for an event in the Taiwan Strait. There’s a lack of understanding of the policies, politics and history of China and Taiwan in Australia’s politics and media, and there’s a reflexive tendency to revert substantive issues into parochial metaphors for Australia’s own nationhood.

While the connection between foreign and defence policy and democratic practice has always been fraught, Australia needs a public sphere that’s able to sustain substantive debate to respond to events in cross-strait relations with measure and purpose.

Australia has made significant strides in defence preparedness and political resilience to ‘grey-zone’ tactics in recent years but another tactical step forward against Taiwan by Beijing is highly likely in the short- to medium-term. That could involve a limited naval or air engagement in the Taiwan Strait or landing troops or marines on a location such as Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island in the South China Sea.  The last two months have demonstrated that Australian public life is not ready for that step.