Taiwan shows a tango of engagement and deterrence against isolation and coercion

Like his strategic partner Vladimir Putin in his horrific war in Ukraine, Xi Jinping’s violently aggressive actions in the past few days against Taiwan—and Japan—have revealed how he wants to act in the world.

These acts are what diplomats and governments have called ‘disproportionate and destabilising’.

Despite the strident efforts of China’s wolf-warrior diplomats, it’s plain hard for Beijing to portray itself as the victim here. Victims are usually not the ones launching ballistic missiles when others aren’t.

The military violence is far from a reasonable response to the visit to Taiwan of an 82-year-old American politician called  Nancy Pelosi.

China’s ambassador to Canberra, Xiao Qian, did his best to follow the instructions from Xi, repeating foreign ministry lines. ‘The actions taken by Chinese government to safeguard state sovereignty and territorial integrity and curb the separatist activities are legitimate and justified. Instead of expressing sympathy and support to the victim, the Australian side has condemned the victim along with the perpetrators.’

But in the real world, Chinese military aggression shows us that Beijing is intent on changing the peaceful status quo across the Taiwan Strait—something that is a flat contradiction to China’s stated policy of wanting peace.

Chinese military planes and ships closing large areas of the air and maritime space around Taiwan and the People’s Liberation Army firing ballistic missiles over the heads of 23 million Taiwanese people and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone are a physical demonstration of China’s intent. These actions make its words about peace and stability empty.

It’s surprising that no one in Beijing or in the PLA higher command seemed to consider the effect on Japanese policy and public opinion that’s flowing from the disastrous decision to launch ballistic missiles into Japan’s EEZ. If China had wanted to really energise Tokyo’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s military power and to think through the close connection between Taiwan’s security and its own, these missile launches would have been the best way of achieving that.

Xi went beyond even the military violence, adding other overreactions like ending climate talks and military contact with the US, cancelling a meeting between the Chinese and  Japanese foreign ministers and threatening the EU if members of the European parliament visit Taiwan.

This lack of control from the Chinese also shows us something important about what happens next in nations’ relationships with Taiwan.

Xi’s violent overreaction to a political visit demonstrates how determined Beijing is to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world. That is probably the biggest implication to draw from the past few weeks.

Beijing’s primary goal with all the heat, light and aggression is to raise the costs of future engagement with Taiwan by all politicians from every democratic country and every government other than its own.

Beijing wants us all to self-censor our engagement with Taiwan to avoid more of these disproportionate reactions. That’s so important because Xi and his military want to have a free hand to act against Taiwan and its people at a time of his choosing.

So, if the US, the EU and its members, Japan, the UK, Australia and even ASEAN members want actual peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, one of the primary ways of getting that is continued—and increased—political and economic engagement with the Taiwanese government, people and economy. That raises the costs to Xi of ordering an attack on Taiwan and it also provides political support for the Taiwanese government and people.

This engagement will show Xi something he already fears is true: using force against Taiwan is against the interests of many governments and peoples. It is not what he would like it to be—an internal matter for the Chinese Communist Party to determine.

Xi’s direction of violence against Taiwan and Japan in the past few days has driven some interesting responses from different parts of the world. The G7 grouping—made up of Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, the US, the EU and the UK—clearly identified Beijing as the source of destabilising aggression around Taiwan and called on China to de-escalate its military actions.

The US, Japan and Australia all issued measured, calm statements separately and as a group that also plainly identified China’s aggression as destabilising and disproportionate.

Even a reluctant ASEAN put out a quietly worded statement that disagreed with Beijing’s core propaganda around its one-China principle, stating, ‘We reiterate ASEAN Members States’ support for their respective One-China Policy.’ Decoding this diplomatic note, the reference to ‘their respective One-China policy’ was ASEAN quietly but firmly dissenting from Beijing’s line that everyone has accepted its particular definition of ‘one China’—which is that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory governed by Beijing.

Like Australia, and many other nations, ASEAN states simply do not and have not signed up to China’s view of the world on this critical issue.

Australia, like many, maintains the same policy that Prime Minister Gough Whitlam put in place back in 1972 when China and Australia established diplomatic relations: ‘The Australian Government recognises the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, [and] acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.’

Critically, Australia acknowledged it is the PRC government’s view that it has jurisdiction over Taiwan—but, beyond acknowledging it, we have never agreed with that view. We do, however, support peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and reject anyone acting unilaterally to change the status of Taiwan by force.

And, stripping back all the words and focusing on who has done what to whom around Taiwan, it’s the Chinese military that is acting unilaterally in an attempt to change the status quo. This is longstanding policy that predates all the drama about Pelosi and will continue long after this event, because it’s about Chinese strategic ambition, not a reaction to a US politician.

Interestingly, having stoked nationalist fervour and outrage in the lead-up to the visit, China’s propagandists have had a hard time convincing these strident, angry nationalists that their government’s actions were at all meaningful. It’s a demonstration that even a deeply controlling, technologically enabled autocracy like China’s can have trouble responding to its own citizens and may even be forced to act internationally simply because of the domestic energies it has channelled and cultivated. While this often violently expressed nationalism is a direct result of successful propaganda in China’s education system and state media, it is adding to the multiplying domestic pressures and challenges Xi is facing.

Where to from here for Australian policy on Taiwan and for bilateral relations with China? The path seems clearer now than it was when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government came to power in May.

On Taiwan and regional security, Australian efforts with allies and partners to raise the costs to Beijing of conflict must intensify.

The defence strategic review ordered by Defence Minister Richard Marles has an obvious and key contribution to make as it finds ways to urgently increase Australia’s military power—a direct contribution to deterrence of conflict in our region.

But this is as much a political and diplomatic issue as a military one, which the government seems to know well. Understanding Beijing’s goal of isolating Taiwan as a precondition for it to then use force to ‘unify’ Taiwan and its people with the mainland makes Australian political and economic engagement with Taiwan more important.

By deepening political and economic engagement with Taiwan, Australia will be working in concert with partners and allies across the Indo-Pacific and in Europe. One example is Japan, with the week’s events only accelerating an already deepening strategic partnership with Australia.

Australia and other partners can also work to have Taiwan included in more international organisations and forums, engage in security discussions with Taiwanese officials, and work with Taiwan on strengthening cybersecurity and countering coercion and disinformation activities.

All this is entirely possible within the one-China policy Australia adopted in 1972. It’s entirely impossible within the one-China policy Beijing is working so hard to tell us we have.

A key part of engagement with Taiwan that Beijing will pretend not to understand is for it to happen just like democracies work internally—in a messy and organic way that allows diverse people and views to express their opinions and act without government direction. So, political visits to Taiwan must not just increase, but be communicated to be what they are: the choices of individuals living in freedom in democracies—and not subject to veto by presidents or prime ministers.

This contrasts with what Xi and Putin told us they wanted in their joint statement back in February: a world where these two leaders dictate the choices of other nations by force if necessary and where other governments self-censor themselves and their populations for fear of the consequences from Beijing and Moscow. This goes to the heart of the real competition with Xi and Putin, which is about how our societies and the world work.

Beijing’s anxiety about this kind of policy direction from governments with connections to Taiwan is already obvious. The future will be a tense one because Chinese strategists and military planners have an object lesson in what this kind of unity can do when they look at the political and military support Ukraine is receiving to fight the war Putin’s miscalculation has inflicted on Europe.

For those who see tension as inherently bad, the alternative to managed tension with Beijing over Taiwan is a future in which we all watch the type of horrific killing and destruction we are seeing in Ukraine occurring in Taiwan as China’s military attempts to conquer 23 million people living in freedom in the vibrant democracy that is Taiwan.

As for Australia’s relations with Beijing, the false dawn that the Chinese ambassador dangled before the new Australian government has already ended. That’s because China is now far less a bilateral relationship for Australia than an increasingly obvious common strategic challenge for every nation affected by Beijing’s use of power. And the strategic partnership between Putin and Xi joins Europe’s security with the security of our own region in new and direct ways.

Our policy must be informed by the knowledge of this common challenge and the unity and power that it brings to common efforts between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. That’s just as important to communicate to the Australian public as it is as a foundation for policy and action.