In parts I and II of this three part post I made a case for the need to talk about Taiwan, today. Here, in this final instalment I shall continue to outline why (linked to Australia) and from where we (Australia) might begin.
Why aren’t we talking about it? Taiwan, since the 2004 Alexander Downer ‘incident’ has been a politically sensitive topic in Australia and ‘thin ice’ that very few dare venture out on to.
The Australian connection? Australia, concerning Taiwan and more specifically a Taiwan crisis scenario, is an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of; the US, our greatest security partner, that we would militarily and diplomatically support them and China, our greatest trading partner, that we would not.
Australia’s interests? In a 2005 paper ‘Balancing Act: Taiwan’s Cross-strait challenge’ published by the Lowy Institute, Malcolm Cook and Craig Meer state that Australia’s Taiwan interests rest in maintaining the status quo. I disagree. From a purely Machiavellian perspective and to borrow from Deng Xiaoping: ‘black or white, if cats catch mice that’s all right’. Australia’s national interest in Taiwan simply rests in the issue not being resolved through force in which Australia is called upon to take sides. In correspondence with US China analyst David Shambaugh, he posited that Australia (and the US) will abide by whatever agreement the two sides (Taiwan and China) can come to providing it is: 1, peaceful and 2, has the consent of the Taiwanese people.
But what of the Taiwanese people? According to statistics provided by the Taiwanese Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), 60.5% of people wish to maintain the status quo (28.3% indefinitely and 32.2% with a yet to be determined decision to be made in the future). A further 23.3% of people wish to maintain the status quo now but with a definite decision to be made later (15.8% calling for independence later and 7.5% unification later). So all up, in one guise or another, the majority of Taiwanese people support the status quo.
However, irrespective of whether the goal is maintaining the status quo or something else, and a point reiterated throughout this series of posts, we really need to start talking more about Taiwan, today. From an Australian perspective, here are three suggestions for where we (Australia) can begin:
i) Clarify Australia’s existing Taiwan Policy and state it in response to questions relating to Australia’s Taiwan position.
I remember, as I was writing my thesis at the time, an ABC Late Line interview with Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith (28/04/2011) who flatly rejected to even discuss Taiwan as an issue, perhaps he didn’t know it but how easy would it have been for him to state Australia’s actual Taiwan policy. In my various attempts at correspondence with the Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary for the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade not once was Australia’s Taiwan policy stated to me.
Australia can de-mystify Taiwan and its discussion by simply acknowledging that it has a policy, the one China policy, and stating it: “Australia recognises the Government of the PRC as the sole legal government of China and acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the PRC.” An abject failure to do so, maintaining Taiwan as a ‘dirty word’/‘taboo’ topic, adds unnecessary gravitas to the situation that we should and need to be able to talk about. Australia needn’t and indeed shouldn’t publicly speculate what it would or wouldn’t commit to in a hypothetical ‘Taiwan conflict scenario’ but shouldn’t be afraid to admit that it has a policy position and to state it. An easy first step.
ii) Convey what Australia supports and doesn’t support to the essential parties concerned: China, Taiwan, and the US.
Australia has, as an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of, a right to have its voice heard. Australia must, as Bruce Jacobs said in a statement to a 2006 Senate report committee on the subject, “stand up and clearly state [its] position to all sides without fear or favour, this can be done quietly but it must be done.”
To Taiwan: Australia must make clear that Australia doesn’t support Taiwanese independence, however, supports the continued peaceful development in relations across the Taiwan Straits. To China: Australia must clarify that it doesn’t support a Taiwan resolution sought by the use of military coercion or armed force, however, supports the continued peaceful development in relations across the Taiwan Straits. And to the US: that Australia doesn’t support continued US arms sales to Taiwan, however, supports the US position to maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan.
Why shouldn’t Australia support continued US weapons sales to Taiwan? For four reasons: Firstly, they really ‘piss’ the Chinese off. US-China relations sour when they occur, and when they happen they only add to the extant security dilemma; the Chinese rattle their sabres and aim a few more missiles at Taiwan, to prevent their own position being undermined, causing the Taiwanese to seek increased security and the US justification to provide it- in the form of more arms transfers (a vicious cycle). Secondly, in the 1982 Communiqué the US said they would eventually phase out arms transfers to Taiwan. Now would be a good time to phase them out and set a deadline to end them in exchange for a Chinese concession which I’ll go on to discuss. Thirdly, it would encourage Taiwan, as global technology leaders, to further develop their own indigenous defence capabilities and systems. And Fourthly, a US pledge of security (combined with that of their regional allies to support them) in the face of unprovoked military force is an adequate deterrence to a solution sought through force.
iii) Use Australian diplomatic influence with both the US and China to clarify the significance of a Taiwan resolution/ settlement to easing Asia-Pacific regional security anxiety and promote such an agreement to both parties.
Again, Australia has, as an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of, a right to have its voice heard. Australia needn’t mediate negotiations, merely be an advocate of ideas. The risk of conflict over Taiwan can simply be reduced by both China and the US settling on an agreement that unifies and clarifies their objectives, reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.
In a joint US-China statement, the US could state that: “The US would not be opposed to Taiwan’s eventual, peaceful, consensual, reunification with China.” This is a policy statement proposed by Hugh White (with the exception that he believes the statement should commence “The US would support…”- in my conversations with a number of US security analysts ‘supporting’ isn’t a term many felt comfortable with, however, ‘not opposing’, it was felt, would be acceptable). White believes that such a statement would be a low cost, low risk means of recognising China’s position, that doesn’t concede anything to China more than it does under the current US Taiwan position, and I agree with him. Who is to say that there might not be, at some moment in the future, through peaceful means, determined by consensus of people on both sides of the straits, a decision for unification- under these circumstances who either would or could prevent it from happening?
However, the US must maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force against Taiwan, and this Australia and other regional allies, as previously stated, should support too (This can not be included in a joint-statement because it would undermine the Chinese position, but must be made clear, quietly, to China). The proposed statement with clarity defines what the US would not oppose, and by inference, what the US would oppose.
China, in return for a US commitment not to support Taiwan’s independence under any circumstance, which is already US policy, coupled with Taiwan’s commitment and assurance to drop any independence aspirations (No independence is already one of President Ma’s three No’s policy), would agree to renounce the force aspect of the anti-secession law, China could state that: “China will renounce the use of military force to pressure reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.”
To reduce the effect of, and end, the extant security dilemma both the US and China should agree a quid pro quo reduction and eventual ceasing of arms sales to Taiwan and missiles deployed against Taiwan respectively. Through removal of the security dilemma China and Taiwan are better positioned to resolve their differences through a more peaceful and mutually determined settlement, the US supported position since the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué.
An initial understanding might be that through removing the Chinese force aspect from the anti-secession law, Taiwan can make the concession of removing the ‘No unification’ statement from President Ma’s current three No’s policy (No independence, No unification, No cause for war), leaving in combination with China’s policy: ‘No force, No independence, No cause for war.’
Through such an agreement both the US and China can maintain face, the status quo can be sustained and Chinese military action against Taiwan would be less likely because China would be less anxious about the US and more relaxed about Taiwan’s trajectory.
“It’s good to talk”. These are ideas; they offer some food for thought. We have another 4 years until another round of Taiwanese/US elections. Taiwan isn’t a ‘dirty word’. At the very least, we simply need to talk more about Taiwan, today.
Ben Moles completed a Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles