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Op-Ed: Preparing for the potential flash point that is Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen discussing training operations at the annual annual Han Kuang military exercises (Source: Foreign Times)

Greg Sheridan is probably right. Any conflict between China and the US over Taiwan this November is likely to be small scale and not involve actual shooting. We should be grateful for that – but not complacent, explains Senator for NSW Jim Molan.

Greg Sheridan is probably right. Any conflict between China and the US over Taiwan this November is likely to be small scale and not involve actual shooting. We should be grateful for that – but not complacent, explains Senator for NSW Jim Molan.

That’s because the prospects for war between the US and China are increasing nonetheless. How Australia and the world, but mainly the US, would react is critical to preserving Australia as a free and democratic nation.

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For China and President Xi Jinping, Taiwan is an issue concerning the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and his leadership, as much as it is about reunification. But the window of opportunity for Xi to act, to fulfil his public promise to reunite Taiwan, will not be open for ever. He may choose to achieve his aim by force.

Some Chinese forces could move very quickly across the strait if surprise was achieved, and established ashore in only a few days. It would have a reasonable chance of success if the US hesitates to intervene, especially if it experiences internal turmoil after the election.

Should Taiwan be defended? Of course it should. If our allies let democratic Taiwan, whose people are stridently anti-reunification, be the next victim of China’s aggression, what can Australia conclude about its own future in this region?

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Can Taiwan be defended? Of course it can. Like the defence of Poland and France in 1939-40, it just requires will and time. How much will and how much time we have is the big question.

In strategic terms, deterrence must be the overall approach: if successful, the problem does not arise. For deterrence to succeed, an as-yet unformed coalition to oppose the occupation of Taiwan must dissuade the Chinese from invading or make it so potentially costly that it is not an option.

Deterrence only succeeds if China cannot ‘win’. We should remember that China ‘won’ in the South China Sea through a series of small steps, taken very quickly and cumulatively. Once their aim was achieved, their leaders declared the issue an internal matter and fortified the gains.

And once China has Taiwan, it dramatically magnifies its ability to enforce its claim over even more regional areas. So China’s occupation of Taiwan is definitely not in our interests.

Two strategies are possible for Australia, given that the US elections are approaching.

The first is an overall strategy based around a pro-Taiwan group of nations led by the US. Such a group may consist of the Five Eyes nations (Australia, Britain, Canada, America and also NZ), plus the ‘Quad’ members India and Japan in certain circumstances. Hopefully South Korea and others would help where they can. At least passive support from the Philippines would also be needed.

The second is an Australian strategy for defending Australian interests, predominantly our homeland, during and after a Taiwan crisis. This strategy would be needed if China’s invasion developed into a wider war.

These two distinct strategies are linked by the available military capabilities of a pro-Taiwan group and Australia, plus a willingness to act quickly.

Still, we must be realistic. Australia does not have the military to both contribute decisively to a coalition to defend Taiwan, as well as defend Australia if a wider war develops. This is reminiscent of choices Britain faced in 1939 and 1940, having guaranteed the sovereignty of Poland and the defence of France, neither of which they were ever able to do.

Australians must realise that a US-led, pro-Taiwan group may be soundly defeated by China. We are conditioned to think that we win the big wars, and that losing distant small wars is not important. But we may wander unthinkingly into disaster. A defeat may lead to a long and appallingly costly conventional war, even a nuclear exchange or a US withdrawal from our region. Australia’s future would be changed forever.

As the US approaches its elections, with a level of division and violence that the media may be overstating, the chances of powers inimical to the US such as China, Russia, Iran or North Korea taking advantage of this situation must increase.

Russia has also tested the US at election time before. China has taken successful risks, too, such as in the South China Sea, when the US had a weak president. The best chance to deter China is to create a large and powerful coalition.

But the US and others are at a strategic disadvantage. There is always the possibility that the US will overcome its military weaknesses and recalibrate itself, and that process has already started. But this is not possible under three-to-five years in the best circumstances.

There are no US forces on Taiwan to effectively defend the island or act as a tripwire to deter China. Locating US troops on the island would be so effective an action that when it was proposed recently in the US, China stated it would go to war if this occurred.

It is unlikely that the US will move large naval surface forces near Taiwan, at least initially, due to China’s missile capability, especially aircraft carrier-killer missiles. Still, the US has recently hinted that it has submarines in location as a deterrent. 

It is also unlikely that the US can sustain a massive punitive air attack on a Chinese invasion force. US forces, especially support forces such as tankers and command aircraft, are very vulnerable to China’s long-range air launched missiles. Much of China’s nuclear and other missile capability is underground.

Conversely, US naval and air bases in the region are very vulnerable to Chinese missile attack, although that may not occur in the initial stages of a Taiwan invasion. That is stuff of all-out war.

The US has not yet put together a coalition of regional nations that could act quickly — as it put NATO together to defend Europe from 1945 to 1991. So a rapid, co-ordinated regional response is unlikely to occur.

China has every advantage in a Taiwan scenario because of geographical proximity to the island, and the overwhelming weight of its forces. It can shield its forces within China from a counter strike. Its undertaken years of preparation, and it has an aggressive nationalistic leadership. It will repress the Taiwanese people mercilessly. Further, the recent history of US and allies compromising might give them confidence. China may not succeed, but the odds are on China’s side.

A successful occupation of Taiwan would see China become the predominant regional power. US credibility would suffer what might be a fatal blow in the eyes of regional countries. What would a rampant China then do?

All this may not happen, and let’s hope it does not. Sadly, a strategy of hope is the strategy of last resort for those that don’t prepare.

Jim Molan is a senator for NSW. He retired as a major general from the Australian Army in 2008.

Op-Ed: Preparing for the potential flash point that is Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election
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