As Tsai Ing-wen begins her second term following a landslide victory in Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential election, the chances of a major security crisis over this longstanding Asian flashpoint are growing.
Australia has much to lose from a Taiwan conflict.
China’s strongman leader, Xi Jinping, has tightened the screws on this island of 23.8 million – which Beijing maintains is part of the Chinese mainland – since Tsai first came to power in 2016.
Tsai, who comes from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has refused to endorse the so-called ‘1992 consensus’ – a murky cross-strait agreement which implies that Taiwan is part of the mainland. She (and, to be fair, most Taiwanese) also opposes Beijing’s preferred ‘one country, two systems’ formula for unification – the same approach that has proven so incendiary in Hong Kong.
Xi has successfully managed to lure all but 15 of Taiwan’s ‘diplomatic allies’ away from recognising the island. He has upped the number of military flights around Taiwan, in an attempt to coerce the island into submission. And he has refused to rule out the use of military force should Taiwan seek to formally separate.
At its May 2020 National People’s Congress, Beijing for the first time removed the word ‘peaceful’ from talk of Taiwanese ‘reunification.’ This further fuelled speculation that Xi will attempt to annex Taiwan from as early as 2021, to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But that seems unlikely. Just under 200 kilometres wide, the Taiwan Strait is a demanding body of water, characterised by inclement weather and very strong tides. Taiwan is surrounded by steep cliffs on one side and dense mud flats on the other, making invasion even more difficult.
A failed attack would likely be political suicide for Xi and perhaps even the CCP. Xi also has plenty else on his plate, including international opprobrium over his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and deepening strategic competition with the United States.
It is far more likely that a Taiwan conflict would start by accident than by design. History tells us that major wars have sometimes been the result of misadventure or miscalculation.
In February 2020, for instance, Chinese military aircraft crossed the Taiwan Strait’s tacitly acknowledged median line for only the second time in two decades. When the first such violation occurred, in March 2019, a standoff involving Taiwanese F-16 and Chinese J-11 fighters ensued, before the Chinese aircraft left the area. Tsai pledged to ‘forcibly expel’ any repeat intrusions.
In July 2019, an actual collision between an unidentified Chinese military vessel and a Taiwanese freighter occurred near Kinmen Island – the scene of two Sino-American crises during the 1950s. Just this March, speedboats likely belonging to China’s infamous ‘maritime militia’ rammed a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel.
Elsewhere in Asia, measures intended to reduce the risk of such incidents escalating into full blown crisis have been established. In mid-2018, for instance, Beijing and Tokyo launched a new ‘communication mechanism’ designed to avoid accidental clashes between Chinese and Japanese ships and aircraft operating in the East China Sea. This new mechanism includes a hotline, facilitating clearer crisis communication between senior Chinese and Japanese defence officials.
Such measures are currently missing for Taiwan. When Xi met then-Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore in November 2015, the two sides agreed to establish a cross-strait hotline. But this mechanism now goes unused, a casualty of Beijing’s diplomatic freeze.
China needs to be encouraged to pick up the phone.
Australia has much to lose from a Taiwan conflict. China is our leading trading partner, current tensions in the bilateral relationship notwithstanding. But if America came to Taiwan’s defence – as it more than likely would – Washington would almost certainly expect Australian involvement. It would, for Canberra, be the ultimate ‘China choice.’ Rather than get to that point, the Morrison government should be working much harder – with other regional partners with a similar stake in this flashpoint, such as Japan and Singapore – to head off this possibility.
Brendan Taylor is Professor of Strategic Studies and Deputy Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs. He is the author of a new International Institute for Strategic Studies ‘Adelphi’ book entitled ‘Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s security and crisis management.’