Some say Australia should take its own path and detach from the U.S. — others say the risks outweigh the benefits
On Tuesday, we looked at Japan’s reasons for bombing Darwin and other parts of Australia during World War II, plus the reasons why a panel of analysts is warning that Australia has to prepare for war with China within three years.
One school of thought is that Australia should remain neutral and let China invade Taiwan, or at least should not join the U.S. in its efforts to deter an invasion. Another school of thought says the long-term effects of letting China take Taiwan — and thereby pushing the U.S. out of the western Pacific — would gradually turn Australia into an abused servant of China. A third perspective is that a Chinese attack on Taiwan will spark a global or Pacific war in which Australia would have no choice but to fight to protect its resources and territory.
These different perspectives were summarized during a war of words recently when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published a long two-part article on February 20 that asked four analysts about Australia’s political options regarding a hypothetical conflict with China over Taiwan. In reply to this, another Australian political analyst, Grant Wyeth, pointed out that the ABC article was built on the assumption that Australia is “sleepwalking” into following the United States into a war with China over Taiwan. Wyeth argued that the ABC article’s analysts tended to frame any potential conflict as simply part of the great power competition between the U.S. and China, while ignoring the rights of Taiwan’s 23.6 million people.
Wyeth also took umbrage with his perception that the article was “filled with lazy snark that Australia is simply an insipid lapdog blindly doing Washington’s bidding, with no genuine reason to want the [Taiwan] status quo to be protected.” He then argues that Australia does have its own important reasons to protect the status quo and deter an invasion. He ended by criticizing the ABC for resorting to “lazy interpretations” of Australia’s strategic calculations and providing a “megaphone to intellectually juvenile anti-Americanism,” and for expressing an uncritical acceptance of the CCP’s claims to Taiwan.
When it comes to the question of what Australia should do in “World War Taiwan,” there are two general lines of thinking: One side says Australia should disconnect from an alliance with the U.S. aimed at deterring a CCP invasion of Taiwan. The opposing side says Australia is vulnerable and should enhance its alliance with the U.S. and build up a joint deterrence force with the U.S. and other allies. I summarized the general arguments of these two viewpoints below. Of course, not all thinkers on a specific side would hold all of the views expressed by some in their camp. The first camp’s arguments are designated “A” below, and the opposing camp’s arguments are designated “B.” Naturally, there would be some minor overlaps in the meaning of some of these broad statements:
1A) A war between China and the U.S. over Taiwan would be caused by the interference of the U.S.
1B) Taiwan has the right to stay free. If China invades Taiwan, it is China that would have started the war and China that would be responsible for the destruction that follows.
2A) Any China-Taiwan conflict should be between those two and no one else.
2B) The People’s Republic of China has never controlled Taiwan. Taiwan has the right to remain free, and the world should defend Taiwan against a much larger aggressor, an aggressor that is trying to break out and threaten more and more nations as its power grows.
3A) China will stop at Taiwan and not keep expanding.
3B) Once China opens the Taiwan door it will have a huge incentive to walk through that strategic portal and expand even faster than before, gradually making abused servants of neighboring states and then projecting that pattern to nations farther and farther away as it consumes more resources and expands.
4A) Any theoretical loss of Taiwan will not affect Australia much.
4B) If Taiwan falls it will affect Australian trade and political freedoms greatly and gradually degrade Australian freedom and prosperity. Rules enforced by the U.S., a democracy that can be held accountable by its people, will be replaced by the rules of a totalitarian communist party that is accountable only to its supreme leader.
5A) China is our largest trading partner, so it makes no sense to form a security alliance against it.
5B) China is our largest trading partner, but a big part of the reason why China pays a fair price for Australian products is because U.S. power protects Australia and keeps China from using abusive trade practices. We saw a glimpse of this when China used trade as a weapon to punish Australia for having divergent opinions. Currently, U.S. power also protects Australia and other countries from China simply invading and taking resources, rather than paying for it — like Japan did to Asian nations in World War II.
6A) The U.S. is foolish to support Taiwan. America should just let it go.
6B) The U.S. is wise to support Taiwan and contain the CCP. If Taiwan falls, the U.S., Australia and many other nations will gradually lose their freedom and prosperity.
7A) China can be trusted to not treat Australia badly if it does take Taiwan, push the U.S. out of the Indo-Pacific region and militarily dominate Asia.
8A) The U.S. is miscalculating, and we should not follow them in their endeavor to contain China. Let go of the U.S. and trust China — or at least become a “free agent” and negotiate with Indo-Pacific nations.
8B) At least we have a good historic relationship with the U.S., compared to a rickety historic relationship with the CCP. It is wise to team up with an old and trusted ally, rather than an inscrutable one-party state you don’t have much reason to trust. And if we detach from our long relationship with the U.S. to become a “free agent,” what exactly would we be negotiating with other Indo-Pacific nations? How to not offend the CCP as its aircraft carriers circle around us?
9A) The war won’t happen anyway, so we shouldn’t risk starting the war by allying with the U.S. and thereby pressuring China into starting a war.
9B) There is a very real chance that Xi will take advantage of the so-called Davidson Window — a temporary weakness in the U.S.’ military ability to react to any invasion of Taiwan, referring to the six years from 2021 to 2027 — and do the Putin thing. Xi will also be pressured by the fact that his window of opportunity is closing as China’s population shrinks and its economy slows. By allying with the U.S., Australia would make it less likely that Xi will try to take Taiwan to break out into the Pacific. By allying with the U.S., the UK and their allies, both Australia and the U.S. become stronger and therefore more secure. By helping the U.S. get valuable naval and air force back-up bases, we can count on the U.S. to help us if we get invaded by China.
As an afterthought, it would also be prudent to consider that a conflict over Taiwan would draw in Japan and other U.S. allies, thereby adding to the pressures created by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Like in World War II and World War I, this could quickly “domino-effect” into a world war, or at least a regional war. In such wars, the old rules of nation-to-nation behavior are suddenly nullified. Anarchy ensues. All of a sudden previously neutral states are making deals with regional powers and nations are rushing to grab resource-rich territories from their neighbors.
Such a scenario might become possible once the current rules-based status quo that guarantees national sovereign rights is shattered by a multinational conflict that makes all rules redundant. A large enough conflict would see a sudden switch to the new rule of “there are no rules and everyone should grab any territory they can take” because it’s that cycle of the “wheel of history” again.
In such a scenario, it is possible that the CCP could make a deal with a neighbor of Australia, perhaps a neighbor that has ten times more people and a large military with millions of troops. They might make a deal with that neighbor to form the bulk of an invasion force in exchange for 50 percent of some serious mineral-extraction profits and new territories. Luckily, Australia’s largest neighbor has little reason to trust China, so that scenario would be unlikely to happen.
However, if anyone did want to steal most of Australia’s resources, they would only need to use the cover and chaos of a global war to occupy Australia’s remote northern and western mining regions and their remote ports. Flanked by PLA anti-air and anti-armor units, such a combined force would be hard to remove with Australia’s 75 soon-to-be-delivered M1A2 tanks (which are too heavy to airlift) and the 24 fighter jets, 48 attack planes, 22 attack helicopters and 108 other helicopters that form the bulk of Australia’s air force.
If such a takeover of Australia’s strategically important and very remote mineral fields did indeed happen, a lot would depend on the size of the invading force and the quality of its weaponry. Australia’s massive size, and the remoteness of its desert-surrounded mining regions, plus its huge coastline dotted with thousands of invasion-friendly beaches, would make its remote mines a relatively easy target during a time of international lawlessness.
If such a theoretical invasion force was powerful enough, Australia’s current arsenal would probably not be able to push it away from the remote mining territories. In such a case, Australia would have to call on the U.S. and its allies. In other words, it might be wise to be in an alliance with the U.S. before the sheet hits the fan, because such an alliance could deter the sheet from flying. It would also free and motivate the U.S. to send high-tech units to come and help you out if the sheet started flying anyway.