Where are the guardrails in Australia’s relations with Taiwan?
26 Jul 2023|

In a world where two countries can disagree but not come to blows, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this year, a central concept is ‘the word of the moment: “guardrails”’.

‘Now, I’m a former minister for infrastructure,’ he continued, ‘so I confess that when I hear “guardrails”, my mind goes straight to the safety barriers on the side of major roads.’

No one wants to go to war over Taiwan, so it makes sense to erect safety barriers if they help avert war. But are guardrails the way to go for Australia on Taiwan?

For the US and China, perhaps. When huge warships and fragile aircraft are at risk of collision, buffers and guardrails can only help. Even so, China’s leadership doesn’t regard guardrails as helpful.

For Beijing it’s not a question of safety barriers along the road but of the road itself. Former foreign minister Qin Gang told the National People’s Congress in March that if the US heads down ‘the wrong path’, then ‘no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing’. Whatever guardrails are in place, ‘there will surely be conflict and confrontation,’ he said.

This talk of taking the wrong road is old-style Mao-speak signalling that President Xi Jinping has struck out on a new and more correct path than the rest of us, and that those taking other roads are heading for trouble, guardrails or not.

In Australia’s case, what guardrails are we talking about in relation to Taiwan?

Under the 1972 mutual recognition agreement, Australia recognised the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and acknowledged the PRC position that Taiwan is a province of China. Australia also tacitly endorsed the US–China Shanghai communiqué of February 1972, which declared that any incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC should not involve an act of war. And, from January 1973 onward, Australia maintained unofficial contacts with Taiwan promoting economic, educational and cultural interests.

If those are our guardrails, then there’s little to worry about. None has been breached in the past 50 years and no Australian government is likely to breach them in the future.

The problem is that Beijing has struck out on a different road and left us guessing where the new guardrails are. It’s all very well for Australia to stick to the main road and uphold the status quo on Taiwan, but Beijing is bent on disrupting the wider regional status quo by shunting the US out of the western Pacific and undermining the security guarantees that come with that. If Beijing gets its way, the status quo on Taiwan is finished too.

As a result, China is tightening its limits of tolerance for what Australia can and can’t do with Taiwan in ways that bear little relation to our 1972 agreement, erecting new guardrails that narrow the policy space for managing relations with Taiwan.

Sticking to our road metaphor, there was a time when Canberra could drive relations with Taiwan on cruise control, simply adhering to agreed precedents for visits, trade negotiations, cultural and educational exchanges, and so on, within the guardrails set by the terms of the 1972 agreement.

No longer. Managing Taiwan relations under Xi’s coercive gaze is like driving down a generous dual carriageway from Sydney to Canberra and finding it reduced to two lanes at Liverpool, then one at Goulburn, and finally a single lane shared with oncoming traffic around Lake George. What else can one do but pull over and hope for the best?

That’s where we are now with Taiwan. Talks on a bilateral trade agreement have stalled. New Zealand and Singapore have trade agreements with Taiwan; Australia doesn’t, even though Taiwan is as important to the Australian economy as it is to Singapore’s and far more important to Australia than to New Zealand. Taiwan is Australia’s fourth largest export partner and the only one of our top 10 export partners with which we don’t have a bilateral free-trade agreement. And, as Rowan Callick reminds us, Australia is desperately trying to diversify its supply chains ‘with rule-of-law jurisdictions that abound in strong business prospects’ to reduce dependence on China. On every count, Taiwan is the most obvious candidate for Australia’s next trade agreement. So why isn’t that happening? Guardrails.

Australia is also reluctant to endorse Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the CPTPP. Japan has publicly come out in support of Taiwan’s application, and Tokyo’s formal agreements with Beijing are all but identical to Canberra’s. Why not welcome Taiwan’s membership? Guardrails again.

Taiwan has the world’s most advanced technology in some of the most dynamic industries in the global economy, and yet Australian universities are reluctant to collaborate in teaching, research and development with their counterparts in Taiwan. Why? Guardrails.

China is laying phantom guardrails to direct us where it wants us to go while leaving us guessing where they are. Guardrails you can’t see are instruments of passive-aggressive coercive control. We have laws against that kind of coercive control in Australian domestic life. We need to call it out in our relations with China.

Albanese had more to say on this subject in his Shangri-La speech. Guardrails are necessary, he said, but hardly sufficient. We also need rules. That means nothing less than a rules-based order, embracing principles and ideals along with workable, meaningful and adaptable practices for advancing international relations and security and, one could add, for trade and research collaboration. Those rules include transparency.

Failure to move forward with trade talks, CPTPP entry and university collaborations signals to Beijing not that we are sticking to the rules or to formal agreements—we are already—but that underhanded economic coercion works to limit Australia’s scope for policy initiatives that are perfectly consistent with agreed rules and contracts.

Over the long term, signalling submission to coercion is likely to prove more costly than pushing the guardrails back to where they belong, marking out agreed rules, principles and contracts, and reopening legitimate space for economic, educational and cultural initiatives with Taiwan.