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As America prepares for war with China, we’re in the crossfire.

Strategic ambiguity is all but dead. The United States has left China and the world in no doubt that if Taiwan is attacked, America will go to war.

The message from President Joe Biden and from the Congress is unmistakeable. But it deserves a closer look, not least because Australia would almost certainly be involved and could have more to lose than the US.

For decades, the policy of America and its allies has been to not have a policy. Successive US administrations resisted answering whether America would come to Taiwan’s aid if it was attacked. And they openly discouraged Taiwan from declaring independence.

This non-policy was all aimed at keeping Taiwan safe and avoiding war. Neither China nor Taiwan could  be sure what America would do, so conflict was avoided. Now, though, a growing number of defence analysts believe strategic ambiguity is more likely to create conflict than to avoid it.

“Too many of the variables that made it a wise course have fundamentally altered,” wrote Richard Haas and David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations in Foreign Affairs.

“An imposed Chinese takeover of Taiwan remains antithetical to US interests. If the United States fails to respond to such a Chinese use of force, regional US allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will conclude that the United States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region.

“These Asian allies would then either accommodate China, leading to the dissolution of US alliances and the crumbling of the balance of power, or they would seek nuclear weapons in a bid to become strategically self-reliant.

“Either scenario would greatly increase the chance of war in a region that is central to the world’s economy and home to most of its people.”

THE MESSAGE FROM THE WHITE HOUSE

For the fourth time in a year, Joe Biden made the same promise. In a widely publicised interview with Scott Pelley of CBS’s Sixty Minutes, the exchange went like this:

Pelley: What should Chinese President Xi know about your commitment to Taiwan?

Biden: We agree with what we signed onto a long time ago. And that there's one China policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving – we're not encouraging their being independent. We're not –  that – that's their decision.

Pelley: But would U.S. forces defend the island?

Biden: Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.

Pelley: So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, U.S. forces, U.S. men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?

Biden: Yes.

The direct commitment to fight China if it invaded Taiwan was, understandably, given wide attention. But the first answer in this exchange was just as significant. America was no longer discouraging Taiwan from declaring independence: “That’s their decision.”

The assumption has long been made that if Taiwan declared unilateral independence, China would quickly invade. In the light of China’s increasing belligerence, and a hard-headed look at what their military forces could actually achieve, the consensus in Washington has shifted.

THE MESSAGE FROM CONGRESS

From Congress, which tends to be more gung-ho on these matters than the White House, there is even less equivocation. Its current emanation is the Taiwan Policy Act which, when passed into law as it is almost sure to be early next year, will up the already-considerable ante against China.

This proposed law will elevate Taiwan to a “major non-NATO ally,” along with Japan, South Korea
 Congress .. more gung-ho than Biden
and, yes, Australia. It upgrades diplomatic relations with Taiwan almost, but not quite, to the level of official recognition; facilitates its participation in trade and other international agreements previously denied to it; spends a good deal of money supporting Taiwan’s military preparedness; and it upgrades training, joint exercises and inter-operability of equipment, enabling the Taiwanese and American forces to work more closely as a single unit.

The act will require the US, to the extent that it can, to bring Taiwan much more closely into the framework of international organisations and agreements, and directs the US ambassador to the United Nations to “leverage their voice and vote to promote Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations”.

Other measures are essentially symbolic but no less important for that. It “directs the US federal government to engage with the democratic government of Taiwan as the legitimate representative of the Taiwanese people (my italics).

Taiwanese officials in the US will be able to fly their flag as a “symbol of Taiwanese sovereignty”. It establishes “de facto diplomatic treatment for Taiwan equivalent to other foreign governments”. It elevates the American office in Taipei to the level of ‘representative’.”

And it threatens “severe” sanctions against China for any hostile action against Taiwan.

All the while, both the President and the Congress seek to retain the increasingly transparent figleaf of a one-China policy. “Our policy has not changed,” says Joe Biden. “Nothing shall be construed”, says a lonely paragraph at the end of the Taiwan Policy Act, “as altering the United States government’s position on Taiwan’s international status”.

Except that it does.

WHAT’S THE FIGHT REALLY ABOUT?

If war did break out, it would be the first time since 1945 that the US or Australia has gone to war in support of a democratic country. All the others – South Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq – were some kind of dictatorship. For all the pious rhetoric, democracy had nothing to do with any of it.

And, despite vast wastage of life and treasure, despite the vaunted military superiority of the US, none of those wars was won. The best result was a tense stalemate in Korea in a war that has never officially ended. Vietnam and Afghanistan ended in chaos and humiliating defeat. Iraq, after 19 years, is still in the chaos phase.

This time it’s different. Taiwan, unlike the others, is now a thriving and robust liberal democracy. Freedom House classes it in the top category for political and civil liberties, along with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and most EU countries (and ahead of the US, which rates only two (out of twelve) for both aspects of human rights). Taiwan was the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.

China is different. It rates seven for political rights, six for civil rights and has an overall assessment of “not free”.

The world democracy index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit rates Taiwan slightly ahead of Australia as a full democracy (they’re eighth in the world, we’re ninth) and the US as a flawed democracy, at 26.

China is at 148. In plain language, it is a tyranny: along with Afghanistan under the Taliban, Myanmar under the junta, Iran under the mullahs, North Korea under Kim Jong-un and Russia under Putin.

America’s flag-of-freedom is looking a bit tattered right now. It has done some truly horrible things in its time but it has more often been on the side of decency, democracy and international law. The current, frequent claims that the “rule-based order” is an American invention for America’s interest that should be replaced by something China would like is a disingenuous fantasy. The United States and the United Nations are not the same thing.

Taiwan Semiconductor ... critical technology

And any attempt to assert a moral equivalence between China and the United States is worse, an offensive nonsense.

If any country is worth fighting for to protect from tyranny, Taiwan is it.

But there are other reasons too. Over half of all the computer chips in the world are made by one company, Taiwan Semiconductor. Critically, it makes the fastest and most powerful chips that are needed for artificial intelligence and the latest military gear. China’s semiconductor industry is far behind. The most sophisticated chips require a level of technology that it doesn’t have and is unlikely to be given.

The US, also struggling to catch up in a field it once led, would be alarmed at China having access to Taiwan’s capability.

Then there are the broader issues. Taiwan is important both symbolically and strategically.

If China was allowed to invade Taiwan without US intervention, who among America’s allies would trust it to come to their aid if attacked? That’s the symbolic issue.

The strategic issue is even clearer: look at Taiwan on the map. It’s equidistant from three of the most important Pacific nations – South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. It’s at the junction of two of the most-travelled waterways for world trade, the South and East China Seas. It challenges China’s dominance of this entire region.

WHAT WOULD A WAR LOOK LIKE?

On its own, Taiwan would stand no chance at all. Despite substantial investment in military hardware, it is savagely outgunned by China. There is conscription for young men over 18, but that has been reduced to only four months. The island’s Defence Department says that’s not enough time to conduct useful training.

Even the briefest look at the relative military strengths of Taiwan and China will quickly reveal how one-sided such a fight would be.

If there was an invasion without outside interference, Chinese forces would first shoot the Taiwanese air force out of the sky, explained Dr Al Palazzo, one of Australia’s most experienced defence analysts.

“In order to get across that 180 kilometres of open water, it needs to be able to control the airspace first,” he said. “You’re going to see strikes against Taiwanese airfields and missile platforms, destroying them so China can control the air. Once that happens, their invasion options change.”

Ships and landing craft could then cross the Taiwan Strait, meeting land-based opposition only when they reached the beaches. The Taiwanese army would be seriously overmatched and unlikely to repel the invaders.

Xi Jinping ... rhetoric or reality?
The US has now made it clear that Taiwan will never be in that position. Xi Jinping, who for years has ramped up the rhetoric and made reunification so important to Chinese identity, now has to make some tough decisions.

There is a tacit deal between the Communist Party and the Chinese people: allow us sole power, give up your civil and political rights, and we’ll ensure you prosper and have a far better life than your parents. On that basis, reunification with the “renegade province” of Taiwan is a side-issue.

Now, with the near-certainty of having to take on not only puny Taiwan but also the US in any fight, the leadership in Beijing has to decide not just when, but if, military action is taken. Various dates have been mooted including 2049, the centenary of the CCP’s accession to power. By then, Xi Jinping would be 96.

THE IF AND WHEN OF WAR

Al Palazzo, the former Director of War Studies for the Australian Army, said the calculations of the Chinese leadership are hard to assess from outside. The rate of construction of military hardware can be observed and quantified, but the mindset of leaders is largely unknowable.

Palazzo ... 'an accident could happen'
“What’s difficult to understand is the military and political leadership’s degree of acceptance of risk. As the political environment changes, that is highly variable. We may reach the point where they will decide that the risks are acceptable.

“The construction rate says it may not happen for 20 years, but it could be considerably sooner.”

“Both sides are seeing an inevitability to war, which is a highly dangerous place to be, and an accident could happen so that the war occurs now and not in 2040.

“A war between the United States and China would be a disaster. People in Tokyo, Seoul or Canberra will not see that as being one of their core interests. The leaders of these other countries are not in the same space as the United States.”

Australia is far more dependent than almost any country on trade with China, accounting for 31% of our exports in 2020. That amounted to $245 billion, and there is a huge annual trade surplus in our favour of around $150 billion. The services trade, such as education, is on top of that.

“Economically it could be quite painful,” defence analyst Al Palazzo told me. “But arguments that countries can’t go to war because of economic connectedness have always proven flawed in the past. The economic consequences are always overblown and they never prevent states from going to war.

“Our government and the previous government have signalled very clearly that we’re not going to stay out of it. We perceive our prime obligation is to be supportive of Washington. We care less about Taipei. It’s not one of our core interests.

“But we won’t sit on the sidelines because we depend on the United States for our security.”

Australia’s long and complex trade routes are highly vulnerable to attack and disruption. With no local refineries, we import all our liquid fuel. It would be extraordinarily easy to bring the Australian economy to a halt.

WARS HAVE NO WINNERS

In war, nobody wins. There are only degrees of loss.

If Australia became involved in a shooting war between the world’s two most potent military powers, our vast and thinly defended continent could expect to take some serious hits. Military facilities, some of which are close to major cities, would almost certainly be targeted.

“There are a number of bases we would allow the US to operate from” Al Palazzo said. “It would be very easy to see China trying to disrupt or destroy those US assets. There is also Pine Gap and the naval station at Exmouth: those are very important installations for the American projection of power in the Indo-Pacific. It would be foolish for the PLA not to target those places.”

And because we lack appropriate defences, those Australian/American bases would be highly vulnerable.

“Australian ground-based air defence is very weak. Our ability to intercept incoming missiles [is not good]. We haven’t invested in these, and as far as I’m aware, nor has the United States.”

WE’VE FORGOTTEN ABOUT ARMAGEDDON

America has an estimated 5,550 nuclear warheads. China has around 350.

“Most commentators here and in the US, most senior military officers and most politicians seem to have forgotten that China and the United States are nuclear armed. China may have many fewer devices than the United States, but they have more than enough.

“With any kind of conversation about a war that doesn’t bring up the nuclear issue, you have to worry about the credibility of the people who are talking about it.

“Throughout the Cold War it was understood that if war eventuated, it would be catastrophically bad. It would probably involve the extinction of both countries, and lots of other people who got in the way. If you read the nuclear theorists, there would not only be massive deaths in China and the United States, but also globally.

“This is no longer understood. No longer considered. Any war between the United States and China may start out with conventional weapons but at some point one side or the other may decide to escalate. If that happens, there won’t be any winners here. We could be looking at the extinction of humanity.”

 

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