How can Australia and its allies better prepare for confrontation between China and Taiwan?
The escalation in military tensions between China and Taiwan is showing no signs of abating, with Chinese President Xi Jinping continuing to authorise flyovers across Taiwan’s south-western air defence identification zone (ADIZ).
Since the turn of the year, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has reported over 20 breaches of the ADIZ, flagging intrusions by offensive platforms operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), including Shenyang J-16 strike fighters and Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft.
These reports have only heightened fears of a looming clash, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) openly touting its plans to absorb the independent democracy.
It remains unclear how the international community would respond to a potential Chinese invasion, with the largest player, the US, standing by its policy of strategic ambiguity.
According to Adam Taylor, a defence policy staffer for a member of the US Congress and a former aviation command and control officer in the US Marine Corps, Taiwan’s allies must begin formulating a plan for this contingency before it’s too late.
Taylor says the US, Australia, and other like-minded nations should explore opportunities to support Taiwan “pre-bellum”.
“Washington and Canberra have a variety of diplomatic and economic tools they can use now to mitigate Chinese coercion and build a coalition for a Taiwan contingency,” he writes.
“US and Australian leaders can use these tools to create a broader global consensus that supports Taiwan’s defence, favours closer ties with Taipei, protects the international status quo, and clearly communicates the costs to China of military action against Taiwan.”
Among the tools available could be a clearer articulation of military commitments in the Indo-Pacific between members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s (the Quad) r—made up of Australia, India, Japan and the US.
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“While the Quad partners have so far opted not to focus on the security dimensions of their partnership in public, they should co-operate, to the extent possible, across the intelligence, information and cyber domains to deter malign behaviour,” he argues.
The recently established technology sharing partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS), he adds, could also play a key role in fostering “hard security cooperation” and devising a Taiwan strategy.
“This will help the Quad partners understand how they can field forces necessary to deter China and/or help defend Taiwan, and will signal to smaller countries in the region the Quad’s ability to meet their security needs,” Taylor continues.
“The US and Australia can use the promise of a more engaged Quad to foster closer ties between Taiwan and the international community.”
He notes this could counter China’s effective campaign to pressure countries into abandoning recognition of Taiwan’s government, aimed at isolating Taiwan and leaving it vulnerable to coercion.
Taylor claims the formation of a broader coalition led by the US and its key strategic partners would send a strong signal to Beijing, flagging truly global consequences of an invasion of Taiwan.
“That may not lead China to reconsider military action against Taiwan, but it could help like-minded countries organise an appropriate response to any unilateral action taken by Beijing in the Taiwan Strait,” he continues.
“Deeper ties between Taiwan and the international community would also provide space for countries with historically close ties to the US and Australia to reconsider their engagement on this issue.
“Freedom-of-navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait by the United Kingdom and France represent welcome action by capable partners, but more is needed. A growing pro-Taiwan international consensus may finally prompt capitals around the world to consider wielding the more serious economic tools in their policy toolboxes.”
So, what mechanisms could be available for an international coalition seeking to deter Beijing?
According to Taylor, sanctions won’t cut it.
“Beijing would likely be willing to weather the effects of sanctions (no matter how costly) if it thought they would eventually end,” he argues.
Rather, Washington, Canberra, and other key strategic partners would need coalition members to “fundamentally rethink” their economic and financial relationships with China.
“The European Union, for example, imports more goods from China than from any other country. If the EU were to reconsider its trade relationship with China in a Taiwan contingency, it might give Beijing pause,” Taylor observes.
This fundamental shift in economic relations would include revising trade relationships with China’s key allies, particularly Russia.
“Russia and China enjoy a warm relationship and share a similar distaste for America’s view of the international order,” he writes.
“Yet Moscow may find reason to cooperate with Washington, Canberra and others on this specific issue. Leaders in Moscow wouldn’t want to trade the current international system for a new order that continues to leave Russia as a ‘junior partner’.
“Russia will likely never trust any effort led by the US, but anything that would give Moscow an incentive not to support Beijing in a Taiwan contingency should be considered.”
Taylor acknowledges that these strategies would not convince Beijing to discard its unification ambitions, but would “capitalise on America’s and Australia’s comparative advantage” — an “extensive network of allies and partners”.
"The US, Australia and like-minded states have the means to impose a variety of costs on China,” he notes.
“However, given the asymmetry of interests involved in a military confrontation, it’s very likely Beijing would tolerate a higher level of losses than would Washington and Canberra.
Taylor concludes: “This means that those interested in helping to defend Taiwan and the status quo would need to impose costs beyond those on the battlefield. Washington and Canberra must begin to mobilise support for this course of action now.”
News Editor – Defence and Security, Momentum Media
Prior to joining the defence and aerospace team in 2020, Charbel was news editor of The Adviser and Mortgage Business, where he covered developments in the banking and financial services sector for three years. Charbel has a keen interest in geopolitics and international relations, graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a double major in politics and journalism. Charbel has also completed internships with The Australian Department of Communications and the Arts and public relations agency Fifty Acres.