‘It would be the end of Xi’:
Andrew Wilkie on war over Taiwan, America’s decline and a new era in Canberra.
It was an unruly conscience that first made Andrew Wilkie famous.
In 2002, when the Iraq invasion was being planned, he was a Lieutenant-Colonel seconded to the Office of National Assessments as a senior intelligence analyst. Andrew was asked to report on the humanitarian considerations in the case for war.
What he found led to his very public resignation.
“Iraq does not pose a security threat to any other country at this point in time,” he told the ABC a week before the invasion began.
“Its weapons of mass destruction program is very disjointed and contained by the regime that's been in place since the last Gulf War. And there is no hard intelligence linking the Iraqi regime to al-Qaeda in any substantial or worrisome way.”
In the event, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – the main excuse for war – were not so much disjointed as non-existent.
For a while, Andrew joined the Australian Greens and stood for them unsuccessfully against John Howard in Bennelong and, after moving to Tasmania, for the Senate. Finally, after a stint selling middle-eastern rugs, he was elected in 2010 as the independent federal member for Denison (now Clark), beating Labor in one of the most left-leaning electorates in the country. He has now made it the second-safest seat in the House of Representatives.
WILL CHINA INVADE TAIWAN?
His engagement in security and defence issues is undiminished. Today, the big questions are all about China, not the Middle East. I ask: will there be war across the Taiwan Strait?
“I think it’s unlikely in the short term because there’s too great a probability that China would lose, and the political cost to President Xi would be too great.
“The US military – if they decide to use it – remains an overwhelming force. On paper, China has a lot of everything, but a lot of it is old and untested. Much of their air force is very old and not much good, with a relatively small number of modern aircraft.
“Perhaps more importantly, it’s unlikely that the Chinese will have the war-fighting doctrine and wherewithal to wage a successful military operation on the scale that’s needed.”
This table shows the apparent relative strength of China and the US. In air power – which would be crucial in such a conflict – America is clearly and heavily dominant.
But, as Andrew says, the Peoples Liberation Army Airforce relies heavily on older aircraft.
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The United States also has older aircraft, but they’re not as dependent on them. Its F-16 fighters, introduced from 1978, are being replaced by the F-35 joint strike fighter. They already have 442 of those, with another 2,456 planned.
And its remaining F-15C/D Eagles, from 1976, are largely used now for training and even those are being phased out.
So, for China, the rational approach would be not to get into a war with its greatest rival.
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There’s a whole political theory about diversionary war, the look-over-there stratagem employed by rulers in trouble from the invasion of France by Henry V of England in 1415 to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. It’s a risky tactic that has ended more often in disaster than in success. Henry’s escapade started the Hundred Years War, which England eventually lost. Putin’s Ukrainian adventure looks like going the same way, only quicker.
Another prime example was the Falklands war in 1982. The Argentinian military junta was in trouble, facing large-scale civil unrest over devastating economic stagnation and the junta’s appalling human rights atrocities. Its invasion of the disputed Falkland Islands, a British possession with a population that opposed unification with Argentina, was an attractive diversion. The junta’s assumption that Britain would not go to war turned out to be an abysmal miscalculation.
“I assume that domestic challenges were one of the reasons for the recent show of force by the Chinese military [following the visit to Taiwan by the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi]. And Pelosi’s visit was actually very convenient for China, rather than it being a genuine cause of concern.”
WHY CHINA WOULD LOSE
“I think some commentators are greatly under-estimating the military challenge of conquering and occupying Taiwan – not because of the Taiwanese military but because of the international military response,” Andrew said.
“If the world just sat back, and thought they’d do a Ukrainian solution [providing weaponry but little else] then eventually China would conquer and occupy Taiwan.
“But if countries like – obviously the United States – but also Japan and Korea were prepared to engage directly with their military forces, the Chinese would be lucky to get a single soldier onto the beach. Because the Taiwan Strait is a sizeable air and sea gap. The Chinese air force and navy would be sitting ducks.”
Seaborne invasions are massively difficult. Neither Napoleon nor Hitler managed to make it across the English Channel, which is only 33 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. The Taiwan Strait is 180 kilometres wide. Huge numbers of troops, artillery and armoured vehicles would have to cross that divide.
Taiwan would need some outside help. With its allies, the democratic side would prevail.
“But we come back to the question: what would be the response?” Andrew asked. “And we still have some ambiguity about that.”
But the Chinese leadership doesn’t know what the response would be either.
“It would be terribly risky. It would be the end of the current president, if he tried and failed.”
People in Taiwan share Andrew’s judgment – that an invasion is unlikely for now. Later on, it’s a different matter.
A recent survey by the Australia Institute asked the same questions to large samples of people in Australia and in Taiwan. It’s a measure of the politically-driven paranoia in Australia that people here are more worried about an invasion than the Taiwanese.
Both, though, seem to accept the reality that Taiwan could not defend alone itself against China’s might.
The tactic that the west has employed in Ukraine – supplying arms without actually taking part in the fighting – would not work in Taiwan, Andrew said. That’s partly because Taiwan is less than one-sixteenth the size of Ukraine.
“I have no doubt that Ukraine will triumph. The strategy will work. But it relies on a huge land-mass, a very big population, and a war over time and distance that I just can’t see happening in Taiwan.
“But if there was an overwhelming response by Taiwan’s allies, it would be a relatively short fight – so long as it didn’t go nuclear. Which is the danger.
“A sane leader would use nuclear arms as a weapon of last resort, to prevent the annihilation of their country. You would assume that the war in Ukraine, and a war over Taiwan, wouldn’t put the Russian state, or the Chinese state, under existential threat.
“But again, we’re assuming a rational response.”
If an attack did go ahead, and the Americans intervened, would – and should – Australia join in? Australians appear to be uncertain and divided on the issue, as the Australia Institute survey revealed.
Regardless of whether we should take part, would we be likely to?
“I think the government of the day would feel obliged. But after we keep our resources to defend our own country, we would have few resources to contribute to the fight. I would expect our government to commit a modest military force – a squadron of F-35s, a couple of warships, maybe special forces in some role.
“And whether or not we care about the Taiwanese, we would see it as more important than ever to be seen as a good ally of the US.”
That’s the answer to would Australia take part. But should we? That’s another question, with a very different answer.
“We should never have found ourselves in this position, of having to take sides like this. I have argued for as long as I can remember that we should have an independent foreign security policy – one that does have alliance relationships but not one that binds us unquestioningly to doing whatever our allies expect of us.
“I see clearly how you could have such a relationship. Britain didn’t go to Vietnam. Canada did not join in the invasion of Iraq, and there wouldn’t be two countries in the world with a closer security relationship than Canada and the US. But the relationship now is the same as it was before.”
After years of China paranoia generated by the Coalition for domestic political advantage, an astonishing 47% of Australians think China will attack Australia directly, and only 17% think that won’t happen. People in Taiwan, who live under real and serious threat, take a more sober view.
“That does worry me,” Andrew said. “China’s not, unprovoked, going to attack and invade Australia. It can’t. No country in the world, not even the United States, has the military and logistic capability to conquer the continent of Australia. They couldn’t even control Iraq or Afghanistan. They couldn’t control Vietnam.
“People who make these claims about Indonesia or China invading Australia have no understanding of what that means. We are one of the few countries in the world, along with New Zealand, that has no conventional military threat.
“When tensions are high for good reasons, it’s time for cool heads. Some of the stuff that came out of the previous government in its last years was just downright hysterical fearmongering. It added an unnecessary and unhelpful dimension to our bilateral relationship with Beijing. And it failed to achieve its primary aim, which was domestic political gain. They lost the election.”
Though we are unlikely ever to be invaded, participating in a full-scale war against China would put us at serious risk.
“But if we get mixed up in a major Asian war, it would be laughably easy to starve us of fuel and other key resources. We would probably find ourselves the target of long-range weapons. If we took part in a major war between China and the United States, I would expect us to be on the receiving end of some firepower – surgical, targeted attacks on RAAF bases, the ADF headquarters outside Canberra. That sort of thing.”
AMERICA IN CRISIS
The United States is in crisis. Its system of government is so fragile and corrupted that the world’s most powerful nation can no longer be regarded as a beacon of democracy. Whether the US comes through this crisis with a more credible polity, or whether it sinks further into chaos, is vastly important to Australia and to the world.
“We have seen a decline but it remains to be seen whether that decline continues,” Andrew said.
“What we’re seeing in the [American] community … Trump is favoured by 60% of registered Republicans to be their nominee for the next presidential election. What are these people thinking?
“I’m the first to criticise what the United States has done. I lament that sometimes it’s not a force for good, it’s a force for bad. But fundamentally it’s a force for good and I don’t like to see it decline.
“I’d rather have the US having dominant influence around the globe than Moscow or Beijing. I do want the US to be a prosperous, stable, democratic country. I do want them to stop all the nonsense they get up to from time to time, that we often go along and support – like Iraq or Vietnam.”
IN CANBERRA, HAPPIER TIMES
The new government – elected with a narrow two-seat majority, a greatly enlarged crossbench and an undertaking to lift the tone of politics – is a welcome contrast with what went before.
“It’s almost as if a weight has lifted for all of us in the place. It’s just nicer. There have been numerous occasions when the government has reached out to the crossbench and worked in a collegiate way; it gave us a fair go at debating and amending the climate change bill; it’s briefed us in detail about things like the integrity agency.
“The new crew have not gone soft on China. We can’t say we’ve changed policy on China but the whole tone has improved in a way that China’s now reaching out to us.”
In the end, politics is about power. How much power does the crossbench have in the new parliament?
“If it’s only about the numbers, the crossbench has no power in the lower house and has all the power in the upper house. But a competent government doesn’t just think about the numbers on any one day.
“The raw numbers could change in this house. They’re at 77 seats, they provide the speaker and so they’ve got a one-seat majority.”
Andrew and the South Australian crossbencher Rebekah Sharkie have been appointed to the Speaker’s Panel, a roster of MPs who can be called on to take the chair when the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are unavailable.
“Tony Burke thinks it’s the first time a crossbencher’s been on the Speaker’s Panel, ever. Part of that is to be a more collegiate parliament but I suspect Albo sees value in having two crossbenchers trained up to be the speaker.”
Immediately after the election, there was media speculation that Andrew would be offered the speakership to protect the government’s majority. He hasn’t talked about the prospect until now.
If Labor lost even one seat at a by-election, it would not want to have to supply a speaker. Having an independent crossbencher in the post would maintain the government’s majority.
The possibility of the speakership is enticing but has its drawbacks.
“I’ve got such mixed feelings. It would be undesirable to be taken out of the fight and to be, at least overtly, muzzled. At the same time, it would be a very positive evolution in the way the parliament works. It would put a crossbencher in a position to help clean up the parliament. And the speaker would have daily direct contact with the PM, and could perhaps achieve more behind the scenes than waving your arms around in the chamber.
“It probably won’t, but if the opportunity came up, I’d have to weigh it up very carefully at the time.”