Dutton raises stakes over Taiwan with talk of war
Has Peter Dutton just committed Australia to a future war against China? His latest comments seem to suggest so.
The contingency that the world increasingly worries about is Taiwan. The Economist magazine calls it “the world’s most dangerous place”. Why? It’s the most likely point of armed clash between China and the US.
Beijing is increasingly bellicose in word and deed in its stated intent to take control of Taiwan; Washington is increasingly inclined to protect Taiwan from any attack.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton in Washington DC in September.Credit:AP
Three days after Paul Keating said that Australia should stand aloof from any such war, Defence Minister Peter Dutton on Saturday said: “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action,” he told The Australian.
“I think we should be very frank and honest about that, look at all of the facts and circumstances without pre-committing, and maybe there are circumstances where we wouldn’t take up that option, (but) I can’t conceive of those circumstances.”
Really? If the US goes to war to protect Taiwan from any invasion by the Chinese mainland, there is a strong argument that Australia should join the fight. There is also a strong argument against.
Either way, it’s a momentous choice. If Australia were to commit to such a war, it would alienate Beijing and most mainland Chinese people for a very long time.
If Australia were to stand back, it would be the abandonment of a democracy to takeover by a tyrant. And the appeasement of a dictator.
What should Australia do? This is not a discussion that the Australian community has yet had. Nor has the Parliament.
Has there been some secret decision in the government’s inner sanctum, the National Security Committee of the cabinet? There has not.
Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, speaks during the National Day celebration in Taipei in October. She said the island is facing “unprecedented challenges” and will defend its sovereignty.Credit:Bloomberg
One senior official described Dutton’s comments as “an analytical opinion rather than a policy decision”. In any case, there is no such war. It’s entirely hypothetical.
Yet, these subtleties are lost in the headlines; Dutton’s weekend comments were reported around the world to signal a toughening of Australia’s stance. “Australia vows to help US defend Taiwan from Chinese attacks,” was the London Financial Times headline.
And the subtleties were lost on a leading Chinese propagandist, Hu Xijin of the Global Times, who promised “heavy attack” on Australia if it should get involved.
Dutton wants to push the debate along, to prepare Australia for the worst. And while his remarks don’t represent government policy, they do carry weight. His opinion adds to the momentum of allies’ attitudes on the Taiwan question.
Until now, the US, Japan, Australia and other Western powers have maintained a careful “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan. They didn’t want to provoke Beijing on such a sensitive topic, but neither did they want to embolden Taiwan to any recklessness, such as a formal declaration of independence.
China, under Xi Jinping, has become more aggressive towards Taiwan.Credit:AP
But the ambiguity is turning to clarity. In recent months, the US and Japan have sent similar signals – real but unofficial – that they would indeed defend Taiwan against mainland aggression. Dutton has now put Australia onto the same footing. The more aggressive China’s posture, the clearer the Western allies’ likely responses. And they’re not the responses Beijing wants.
China is determined to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland. It is non-negotiable, the reddest of Beijing’s red lines. While Beijing always says that it prefers peaceful means, it never rules out the use of force.
The chances that it does use force appear to be rising. Among other indicators, the number of incursions by Beijing’s air force into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone is rising year by year. Beijing set a new record last month by flying 148 fighters and bombers into Taiwan’s zone over a four-day period.
Its intent is plain. It’s to intimidate Taiwan and wear down its defences; Taipei scrambles its own, older, smaller air force every time.
If it came to war, it would be a contest of David versus Goliath. Taiwan is a self-governing democracy of 25 million people. It occupies an island half the size of Tasmania.
The People’s Republic of China is a dictatorship of 1.4 billion occupying a land mass about one-fifth bigger than the Australian continent. The mainland military has overwhelming advantage.
And they’re close. It’s just 180 kilometres across the Taiwan Strait. It’s so close that a bloke rowed the across the strait in a rubber dinghy a few months ago.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes China is building the capability to mount an invasion by 2027.Credit:AP
Beijing’s only formal deadline is to accomplish the absorption of the self-governing island by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
But the top US officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said this month that China was building the capability to mount an invasion by 2027, the deadline that Beijing has set for the completion of China’s military “modernisation”.
Milley told a conference: “I don’t think it is likely in the near future, being defined as six, 12, maybe 24 months, that kind of window. Having said that, the Chinese are clearly and unambiguously building the capability to provide those options to the national leadership if they choose at some point in the near future.”
Although the US does not recognise Taiwan diplomatically, it has been arming Taiwan for decades to help deter any mainland attack.
The chances of US intervention to defend Taiwan have soared. Twice this year, Joe Biden has said the US was committed to its defence, although his officials have sought to downplay his remarks. And there’s been a striking hardening of sentiment in Tokyo. The deputy Prime Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, said this year that a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would pose an “existential” threat to Japan. Again, this was downplayed by others in Japan’s government as “unofficial”.
For Australia, it would be a grave decision to join the US and Japan and go to war against China.
Officially, Australia doesn’t even recognise Taiwan as a country. So legally, any conflict between Taiwan and the mainland would be a civil war within China. And Beijing would damn Australia for generations for frustrating its glorious reunification.
But the alternative would be grave, too. Should Australia acquiesce to the wishes of a dictator who has plans to dominate the entire region? History has shown the futility of appeasing aggressive dictators.
The best case is that it remains a hypothetical. If not, we now know the position that Peter Dutton would take in the cabinet room. With stakes so high, it’s a debate the rest of Australia needs to join.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
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