With tensions in the western Pacific increasing, the small island nation of Taiwan is once again making headlines. Now ASPI executive director Peter Jennings has warned the US Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission of an increased likelihood of a Taiwan flashpoint.
It is the relationship that will define whether the 21st century is a repeat of the 20th in its bloodshed and conflict, or a renewed and unprecedented period of co-operation and advancement.
The US and China relationship is showing increasing signs of fraying as the world's two great powers size each other up from across the vast expanse of the Pacific. This growing period of tension is now increasingly centred on the small island of Taiwan, a contentious issue harkening back to the darkest days of the Cold War.
Despite the seeming victory of the US-led democratic global order at the end of the Cold War, this renewed period of great power competition has overthrown the long-standing, largely academic myth of the "end of history" was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity – we now know that to be wishful thinking.
While the nation's geographic isolation, encapsulated by the 'tyranny of distance', has provided Australia with a degree of protection from the major, epoch-defining and empire ending conflagrations of the 20th century, the 21st century's great power rivalry hits far closer to home.
Despite its relative isolation, Australia’s position as a global trading nation, entrenched in the maintenance and expansion of the post-Second World War order, has left the nation at a unique and troubling crossroads, particularly as its two largest and most influential “great and powerful” friends – the US and the UK – appear to be floundering against the tide of history.
While the new Biden/Harris administration is still finding its foreign policy feet and, more specifically, its defence policy in the face of an increasingly belligerent Beijing, ASPI executive director Peter Jennings has provided interesting insights and forewarning of a potential conflict inducing flashpoint in Taiwan.
Setting the scene, Jennings addresses questions raised by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission of Congress, detailing the growing tensions and, concerningly for regional and global peace and stability, the likelihood of conflagration over Taiwan. "At any time, Chinese President Xi Jinping could reduce the rhetorical tone and limit the People’s Liberation Army’s military exercises and air incursions, Jennings says, but Xi stands to lose nothing if he keeps testing the limits.
"This gives rise, in my view, to a possible major crisis on Taiwan or the East China Sea in 2021." Jennings says Beijing will have developed a menu of options to pressure concessions from Taipei related to its political autonomy.
"This does not have to involve a PLA amphibious assault of Taiwan’s northern beaches, but it could involve maritime blockades, closing airspace, cyber assaults, missile launchings around (and over) Taiwan, use of fifth column assets inside Taiwan, use of PLA force in a range of deniable grey-zone activities and potentially seizing offshore territory – Quemoy and Matsu, Pratas, and Kinmen Islands. Beijing will continue to probe with military actions, test international reactions and probe again," Jennings articulates.
Beijing actively splits Democracies
A key component of President Xi's long-term ambitions in the region and designs for Taiwanese reunification is effectively undermining the legitimacy of not only the US, but also regional and global democracies, including Australia with an emphasis on coercing nations as a means of forcing compliance and destroying the remaining vestiges of the post-Second World War order.
Jennings states, "Key south-east Asian countries will make judgements about the need to hedge their relations with Beijing based on the level of confidence they have that the United States is engaged with the region and committed (for reasons of its own interests) to Asian security. A south-east Asia that doubts the longevity of American interest will get closer to the PRC regardless of the appeal of doing so."
Building on this, Jennings references the Australian experience of Chinese coercion in recent months, stating, "As Australia saw over 2020, Beijing works hard to split democracies apart from each other and to weaken their resolve through bilateral pressure.
"My view is that the Commission can play an international role by co-operating more closely with like-minded democratic legislatures including, of course, the Australian Parliament; sharing information and generally emphasising that we must work together to address a global threat. The Commission might consider establishing a regular dialogue on the PRC for legislatures from the Five Eyes countries."
But what about multilaturalism?
Many commentators have frequently spruiked the Biden election as a 'return of the United States' and 'sanity' when it comes to international relations and the post-War order, often overlooking precedent throughout the Obama years, combined with domestic challenges, serve to undermine the legitimacy of the Biden administration's foreign policy agenda.
Hadrien Saperstein, a researcher at the Asia Centre think tank in Paris, explains, "Some have forecast that Joe Biden’s multilateral approach will help rescue the Trump administration’s failed foreign policy approach across the Asia-Pacific region (notably in south-east Asia) and could reverse such a strategic shift.
"One of the tenets described in this return to a multilateral approach is the US (re)joining a host of international organisations and programs, including the World Health Organisation’s Covax initiative, which aims to provide 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines by the end of next year to underdeveloped countries.
"However, to the extent that US success within international organisations and with partners is undergirded by US soft power, Biden’s influence will be gravely weakened with each passing domestic crisis. Whereas in the past American soft power was systematically a strength towards aggrandising the United States’ authority abroad, it will now mostly have the reverse effect.
"Therefore, the Biden administration’s projected 'no-frills' or 'business almost as usual' approach (echoing the Obama-Clinton foreign policy era) is likely to be incompatible with a new international environment and this strategic shift.
"Consequently, in the coming years, the US government will heedlessly continue the process of militarising its foreign policy in an attempt to mitigate the diplomatic failure to reverse the slow-moving strategic shift that will occur in the Asia-Pacific region.
"The inability to project power beyond militarised means, elicited by intermittent domestic crises, will make allies and partners far less confident in the depth and durability of the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. The likely result will be that the United States is once again long on promises, but short on delivery."
Australia is defined by its economic, political and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.