Defending Taiwan: the deterrent effect of uncertainty

The recent debate here on The Strategist between Paul Dibb and Hugh White over how Australia ought to respond to an unprovoked Chinese attack on the island of Taiwan touches upon an issue of deep importance to Australia.

That issue is not, we believe, the future credibility of the ANZUS Treaty. It’s about, as Malcolm Turnbull observed back at the Shangri-La dialogue in 2017, the kind of peace that Australia hopes to enjoy in an Indo-Pacific future.

White’s prescription of relentless conflict avoidance—because we might lose—seems unlikely to give Australia the outcome it most wants: a peace that arises from a rules-based order, or, as Turnbull put it, ‘a world where the big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small’.

Let’s start by clearing one point out of the way. The ANZUS Treaty does not directly obligate Australia to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. True, the treaty applies to a much broader geographic area than merely the national territories of its signatories. But the peripheral edges of what constitutes the treaty’s ‘Pacific Area’ are somewhat indistinct.

Both Australia and New Zealand have made clear over time that they do not believe that Taiwan is covered. J.G. Starke’s conclusion (page 129 of his analysis of the treaty) seems to be that ‘if there should be material doubt as to whether the armed attack has occurred within the treaty area, each party … would decide for itself … whether it had so occurred’.

Still, regardless of treaty commitments, Australia and New Zealand have also made clear that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be a matter of serious concern to them, just as it would be to any country interested in regional security. So it’s entirely possible that Australia might judge that it had strategic interests at risk in such a circumstance. Canberra has defined its strategic interests broadly in recent years, buying into an Indo-Pacific strategic framework rather than merely an Asia–Pacific one. Those interests don’t have to simply match the ANZUS Treaty’s ‘Pacific Area’.

But we have a larger concern with White’s assertion that Australia’s (and America’s) response to an unprovoked Chinese attack on Taiwan should turn upon the judgement of ‘who would win the [subsequent] war’ between China and the US. White argues that ‘a swift, cheap and decisive US victory over China would be very unlikely’. Perhaps. But we’re talking about an unprovoked Chinese attack here. We might consider that a swift, cheap and decisive Chinese victory would also be unlikely.

So the central question is: what might more effectively deter Beijing from setting off on such an adventure in the first place? Suggesting Australian indifference on the issue, let alone counselling US restraint—or even active US statements that it would not act for fear of losing—seems unlikely to have that effect. Indeed, quite the opposite.

It’s the prospect of a protracted, bloody conflict against the US and perhaps others, as well as Taiwan, that ought to be uppermost in Chinese policymakers’ minds when the issue arises in Beijing. Conquest, via an unprovoked attack, shouldn’t look easy and attractive—and should not be licensed by pre-emptive statements that others will not act.

Beijing’s being uncertain about the likelihood of any US administration acting to defend Taiwan—with or without nuclear weapons—is an uncertainty that acts to limit Chinese action. That seems a healthy outcome to keep in mind. It’s one that seems to be given increased power with all the uncertainties about what President Donald Trump may or may not do with US military power.

Besides, if the Chinese generals have done their homework, they’ll know that a successful invasion of Taiwan requires more than Chinese resolve and good anti-access capabilities. It requires China to have air superiority over the Taiwan Strait. Without air superiority, a surface fleet won’t survive its crossing of the strait. China doesn’t currently exercise air superiority over the strait. Whether it will do so 10 years from now is unclear; the answer will depend on what both sides do over that time span.

Sure, if invasion isn’t going to be easy, China could still target Taiwan with missiles from afar, but that scarcely seems a practical avenue to reunification, which seems to be Beijing’s objective. Similarly, a blockade would take time, might well break in the face of persistent challenge, and wouldn’t automatically lead to an endgame of reunification either.

So, let’s not see Australian analysts helping to convince Beijing’s leaders that the prospects of US intervention in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan are so low that Beijing can feel free to act as it wishes.

That would not only increase the prospects of military adventurism by an already overconfident PLA. It would also be a dangerously false assurance that could mislead Beijing into walking into a major crisis and potential conflict with the United States.