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Is Australia's Defence Minister Peter Dutton playing chicken in the Taiwan Strait?

Australia's Defence Minister Peter Dutton's commentary on China has been needlessly aggressive. Picture: Keegan Carroll
Australia's Defence Minister Peter Dutton's commentary on China has been needlessly aggressive. Picture: Keegan Carroll

One can more or less take it as read the United States does not want to go to war with China over Taiwan, even if China's 70-year-old belligerence about reuniting with its rebel province by force comes to actual hostilities. Likewise with Australia, which has recently declared it was prepared to fight alongside Americans and Taiwanese against any takeover. Much as Australia has counselled China against forcible reunion over the years, we have never previously indicated an invasion would be an act of war.

Indeed, until recently, even the United States has been deliberately ambiguous about what it would do if China turned up the heat on the issue - whether by shooting down Taiwanese aircraft, sending missiles towards population centres, or even in setting out for an amphibious landing. In recent times, President Joe Biden has seemed to suggest America might fight alongside the Taiwanese.

But every time he has used loose words with this implication, the US administration has "clarified" his remarks to say the US position on involvement has not changed. That means the US will supply arms and equipment to a Taiwanese resistance, almost certainly promote a strong world reaction to it and, probably, with or without UN support, promote sanctions, boycotts and attempts to punish China's trade. Getting into any military engagement with the Chinese, or bringing its navy in so close as to expose it to Chinese missiles, would run enormous risks, including of a wider shooting war the results of which one could not predict.

Taiwan, after all, is right alongside China. American has bases, or potential bases, in Guam, Japan, the Philippines, or even Australia, that could support an American military engagement in the South China Sea. But the logistics of supplying Taiwan or any international force in any sort of armed conflict would be a nightmare. Moreover, the US (like Australia) has always acknowledged a one-China policy. It, like Australia, Japan and other countries, is appalled at the possibility of conflict, can and has fashioned fresh words about a gallant little autonomous province bravely resisting forcible incorporation - perhaps even being worthy of being granted independence. There would be nothing new if the import of such words was a strong plea - perhaps a warning - to China to play nice, but something altogether different were it to suggest not doing so represented a breach of international law, or the invasion of another country.

Could conflict be confined to a limited war?

But then there are bigger problems. Supposing China, in the opinion of the US, or perhaps Peter Dutton, went too far? How far does the reaction go and, if western allies or neighbours attempt some sort of limited military response, how can they confine it? China is, after all, a nuclear superpower, capable of regarding a challenge to its sovereign borders from another superpower, or group of them, as the casus belli of a major conflict. Fairly soon it might be beyond the power of either party, or both of them, to restrict its scope. How, in any event, would a US-led coalition define its war aims? Would they be restricted to evicting China from the Taiwanese islands? Or would it go further - perhaps to liberate Hong Kong from the new Chinese yoke, or at least to force a chastened China to agree to be nice to everyone, even its own citizens in future?

China itself faces similar dilemmas. It reckons, reasonably enough, the power and the will of the US and its allies to resist a reincorporation of Taiwan is in decline. It can hardly have failed to note its crackdown on Hong Kong was met by little more than hand-wringing, in spite of strong warnings from US spokesmen. It sees its own power, particularly in its immediate neighbourhood as increasing; it is almost certainly now able to launch and supply an invasion, and to prevail quickly against mere Taiwanese resistance. It probably was not 10 years ago, primarily because the US has long been generous in supplying defensive equipment and the country is heavily militarised.

China could contemplate moving on Taiwan as a way of demonstrating American impotence, or the declining American will to get involved in foreign conflicts, or the general emptiness of a good many pledges the US has made in recent years to countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It might bring to a head the long developing struggle for hegemony in the region, inviting the US, in effect, to consider when the cost of resisting Taiwanese incorporation would be far greater than any benefits to be achieved if - and that would have to be a big if - its military intervention were to succeed.

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China, on the other hand, must contemplate whether bringing on the conflict will be worth the enormous world reaction such a breach of the peace would involve. That reaction might be too great even if the US and its allies did not become militarily engaged. An American-led boycott and sanctions agreed with the European Community and other industrial countries could severely affect China's growth, not least as it wrestles with its economic problems. It could inflame some of its internal conflicts, not least over the human rights of Uighurs, Tibetans and Muslims. It could stir strong neighbours - Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, ASEAN nations, Australia and India - to take stronger action against potential Chinese aggression. It could even threaten one of China's long-term foreign policy aims - largely achieved - of the security of trade transit through the South China Sea.

But before China moves - if it is to move - it must have a clear idea of the likely military reaction from the US and its allies. That's one reason why, until now, America has been deliberately vague about what it would do in response to an attack, about what it would consider to be an attack triggering an American response were it to have decided on one.

What Australians should be asking themselves is whether the peace, or the ambiguity, is being served by the aggressive commentary from Australia's Defence Minister Dutton - seeming both to be barracking for a war, as well as going further than Australia has ever gone in making it clear we would scarcely hesitate to stand alongside the Taiwanese resistance.

China, in making its calculations, is not much focused on Australian military might, or aggressive spirit. It is much more preoccupied with the nature of reaction from the US and, to a lesser extent, Japan. But Dutton's interjections do have a place - in seeming to assume America might well be committed if there is any invasion. Dutton's comments must make China consider whether he, or Australia, knows something that has not been disclosed to China. Japan, if more careful, less gratuitous and less belligerent than Australia, has also indicated armed conflict over Taiwan would be an "emergency" for the US-Japan alliance.

"People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognising this," former prime minister Shinzo Abe has said.

But even if Dutton's comments have another purpose - of deliberately trying to increase Xi's uncertainty about America's will to get involved - can Australians feel confident Dutton has calculated how his words will be received? He's hardly the experienced statesman, nor one with any reputation for carefully considering advice. He has demonstrated no feel for Chinese politics or the personalities of its leadership, its policies and its checks and balances. He is of authoritarian temperament in the Chinese mould - and seemingly yearns for something similar in the way of a surveillance state. His record on human rights, on national security legislation and approach to law and order does not equip him to pose as a champion of freedom. Even assuming he is taking advice from the hard-line national security professionals who currently dominate official Australian thinking, he has injected so much of his personality, partisan politics and opportunism into the debate his motives are bound to be suspected.

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There's a long record of pliant Australian foreign ministers, prime ministers and defence ministers playing a hard line in an attempt to curry favour with decision-makers in the US. Alexander Downer and John Howard seemed far more enthusiastic about western intervention in Iraq (and the irresistible conclusion Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction) than George W. Bush initially seemed to be. The fact Australia (and Britain) were so gung-ho helped Bush manage the domestic US politics of going to war without much idea of what could be achieved.

But those, and other exercises, were examples of what is sometimes described as playing "pig in the minefield" - by which expendable figures (such as Downer) are sent forward ahead of the main body to see whether they set off explosions. In this case, however, Dutton is not helpfully pushing a tougher approach on the US - an approach they secretly want but cannot initiate except under pressure. Instead Dutton seems to be acting so as to put pressure on the US for a strong military response when such an intervention may not be either what the US wants, or in its best interests.

To what end does Dutton's mantra benefit Australia?

It need hardly be added a conflict of the sort he is sooling for is not in Australia's best interests, either.

It ought to be unthinkable Australia would want to get involved in such a mad adventure. Only in the most indirect sense is our national interest involved. Our participation would be unlikely to make any sort of difference to the outcome. It would certainly cause severe Chinese retaliation - the more stringent because Australia, unlike the US, is easily bullied - and invite questions in the neighbourhood about the judgment of our leaders. Confronted, for the first time in generations by an enemy able to shoot back, our navy and our air force would probably be obliterated, without even the glory of futile sacrifice as at Gallipoli or Greece.

Perhaps Dutton is acting to a script agreed in Washington - seeking, at their request, to increase China's uncertainty about how America will respond. Or maybe he is acting of his own initiative - or in an Australian initiative - on the theory the more he spells out horrible consequences, the less likely that China will invade. A game of sorts, or a big bluff, by a player who sees through the bricks in the wall and has a good feel for what the "enemy" is thinking.

It's hard to imagine he is out-thinking the other players. Last time his head was above the parapet, he could not even estimate properly the number of his friends.

In games like this, there's ample room for misunderstanding, misinterpretation of the significance of words or actions. The consequences of such mistakes, particularly when there is a vast cultural chasm between the two political systems, could be severe. Until recently, however, the US has calculated being ambiguous - keeping China uncertain of the nature of an American response - is more likely to make it cautious than being perfectly clear about the consequences of an invasion. That, after all, has the capacity to make the response a given, able to be calculated and maybe countered.

Risk of Chinese miscalculation and odds of conflict have grown

"Biden has more than once seemed to articulate a version of strategic clarity, suggesting that the US would help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack," Richard Haass and David Sacks say. "In each case, however, administration officials have later walked back Biden's statements, in the process signalling a lack of will to China and unsettling allies and partners that are looking to the US for clear guidance so they can adjust their positions accordingly.

"Adding to the confusion is the fact that despite the official insistence that nothing has changed, the administration has made visible moves to upgrade US ties with Taiwan: its actions have often been more in line with Biden's informal comments than with its official position. The net result is that the risk of a Chinese miscalculation and the odds of a conflict have grown."

There's another possibility. Which is that China is not actually contemplating a breach of the peace, even if it continues to feel it necessary, as it has since 1949, to issue dire threats to the rebels. Most of the case that China has recently become aggressive and expansionist depends on deductions from not much evidence by analysts with a good many preconceived ideas. It is, of course, quite true Australia has taken a bit of a hammering from China in recent times, but one could make a fairly good case this owes more to conscious provocations from the Australian government, particularly Marise Payne, than to well-judged responses to Chinese beastliness. Thank heavens we will have subs to point at them generations from now, if only they hold off until we are ready.

Fifty years ago Australia, under the most inept and reactionary government we had known until recently, was pretending the government in Taiwan was the legitimate government of all of China. In mid-1972, Gough Whitlam, leader of the opposition, travelled to the real China and was denounced here as a traitor - until it was announced US President Richard Nixon was planning a similar visit. How the hell did we get from there to here?

This story Is Dutton playing chicken in the Taiwan Strait? first appeared on The Canberra Times.