Cross-Strait relations and Australia's evolving Taiwan policy
Week of 4 to 10 October 2021
Beijing not one for brooking
China’s President Xi Jinping speaking on 9 October at a meeting marking the 110th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution:
“The Taiwan question arose out of the weakness and chaos of our nation, and it will be resolved as national rejuvenation becomes a reality.”
“National reunification by peaceful means best serves the interests of the Chinese nation as a whole, including our compatriots in Taiwan. We will adhere to the basic policies of peaceful reunification and One Country, Two Systems, uphold the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus, and work for the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations. Compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
“The Chinese nation has an honorable tradition of opposing division and safeguarding unity. Secession aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ is the greatest obstacle to national reunification and a grave danger to national rejuvenation. Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end; they will be disdained by the people and condemned by history. The Taiwan question is purely an internal matter for China, one which brooks no external interference. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The complete reunification of our country will be and can be realized.”
President Xi’s remarks again make explicit the connection between Beijing’s overarching goal of national rejuvenation and China’s plans for unification with Taiwan. Not only is taking Taiwan on China’s terms a sine qua non of national rejuvenation, but President Xi describes this outcome as an inevitability. None of this represents a significant evolution of Beijing’s goals in the Taiwan Strait or its policies towards Taipei. (These latest comments about Taiwan are broadly consistent with messages delivered previously in 2019 and earlier this year.) Yet these statements from President Xi once again strikingly capture the herculean task faced by Taiwan and its partners as they ramp up their efforts to deter China.
President Xi’s speech was presumably designed to appeal to both Party members and the broader Chinese population, while also delivering pointed messages to Taipei and other capitals that support Taiwan. But even if these words are partially political braggadocio, they still point to a dramatic rhetorical asymmetry. Even the language used by Taiwan’s closest and most powerful partners, such as the United States and Japan, is relatively rhetorically reserved when compared to President Xi’s definitive statements about the quasi-Hegelian historical telos of the future of cross-Strait relations.
Does this mismatch between Beijing’s apparently unswayable determination and the relatively cautious and nuanced messaging from Taipei’s international partners mean that the effort to safeguard Taiwan’s de facto independence is already lost? Certainly not, especially considering that deterrence efforts in support of Taiwan have been ongoing and successful for decades. Moreover, the prospects of successful and sustainable deterrence continue to be boosted by the growing array of countries that are utilising an expending toolkit of policies to deepen political, diplomatic, and economic ties with Taiwan.
But the strength of Beijing’s commitments does at least suggest that successfully deterring China in the coming years and decades will require deep and enduring determination. Especially since the global balance of economic and military power is likely to continue to drift in China’s favour. This is by no means to argue that efforts to deter China should be preemptively abandoned. Such an outcome would be disastrous for a range of reasons, including its likely dire consequences for the security, rights, and freedoms of some 24 million Taiwanese. Yet even short of the worst-case and ultimately unlikely scenario of the realistic threat of large-scale war in the Taiwan Strait, successfully deterring China will require a growing appetite for risk and a multigenerational commitment to acting against some of Beijing’s most fervent wishes. These are exacting demands that publics and political leaders should grapple with eyes wide open.
Australia’s evolving Taiwan policy
Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne responding on 7 October to a question from David Speers about formally recognising Taiwan:
“Well we are committed to our One‑China policy and that has been a bipartisan position in Australia for a very long time. That does not mean to say however that we have not recognised our opportunity to strengthen ties with Taiwan. They’re a leading democracy. They’re a critical partner, and we continue to engage with them in practical ways that advance our interests.”
Although Australia’s formal “one China policy” remains unchanged, the particulars of the Australian approach to Taiwan are rapidly evolving. Replicating the language of “critical partner” from last month’s ASUMIN joint statement, Minister Payne again made plain that Australia sees strengthening ties with Taiwan as a priority. Unsurprisingly, Minister Payne eschewed the kind of rhetorically charged language used by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he addressed the Yushan Forum in Taiwan last week. Minister Payne, for example, made no reference to supposedly 1930s-style territorial expansionism or “a cult of the new red emperor.”
But despite the large linguistic differences between former Prime Minister Abbott’s and Minister Payne’s remarks, at least one of their substantive rationales for engaging more deeply with Taiwan is broadly similar. For Canberra, as for former Prime Minister Abbott, there is an underlying political/values-based rationale for further developing ties with Taipei. Given China’s ambitions to take Taiwan and the fundamentally different political systems on each side of the Taiwan Strait, Canberra seems to be edging towards the conclusion that Taipei is at the very front line of the global struggle to safeguard liberal democratic values and institutions against an ascendant authoritarianism.
Although former Prime Minister Abbott devoted less attention to practical considerations, the clear implication of Minister Payne’s remarks is that Australia is equally focussed on a range of pragmatic reasons for broadening and deepening engagement with Taiwan. As well as the benefits of expanding Taiwanese participation in multilateral fora, which the Australian foreign and defence ministers reiterated with their French counterparts in August this year, Canberra also clearly judges that there’s a strong economic case for stepping up bilateral engagement.
Tsai on the stakes in Taiwan
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen writing in Foreign Affairs:
“[I]f Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system. It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”
“[A] failure to defend Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese; it would overturn a security architecture that has allowed for peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades.”
President Tsai’s language is much more florid and forceful than Minister for Foreign Affairs Payne’s short remarks. Yet it is nevertheless striking that both characterise the case for supporting and engaging with Taiwan partly in terms of fundamental political principles. Quite aside from any of the practical reasons for bolstering bilateral political, diplomatic, and economic connections, Canberra seems to increasingly share Taipei’s instinct to frame the case for deepening ties in terms of democratic values and institutions.
Ongoing Australian debates about the advantages and drawbacks of values-based foreign policy notwithstanding, it appears that this ship has already sailed on Taiwan policy. As well as a “critical partner” for both the United States and Australia, the 2021 AUSMIN joint statement labelled Taiwan a “leading democracy.” Among a number of other shifts in language, the explicit reference to Taiwanese democracy was absent from the 2020 AUSMIN joint statement. Like Taiwan’s presidential office, the Department of State and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade appear more willing and able to explicitly bring the case for supporting and engaging with Taiwan back to basic liberal democratic principles.
Despite the common emphasis on political values, President Tsai went much further in detailing the apparent consequences of the Mainland seizing Taiwan. She explicitly linked this scenario to nothing less than a collapse of the Indo-Pacific’s security architecture and a catastrophic outcome for peace and security in the region. Are President Tsai’s dire predictions accurate? It’s impossible to say in the abstract. The precise consequences of the Mainland taking Taiwan would substantially depend on how Taiwan was seized and the international political context in which it occurred, among a range of other relevant factors.
On one level though, the plausibility of President Tsai’s predictions is moot. As a piece of diplomatic messaging, these presidential prognostications are extremely apropos. The prevailing political mood towards China’s Party-state in many capitals is one of rising suspicion and fear. Beijing is seen as a source of numerous security threats and dangerously destabilising assertiveness. Meanwhile, anxieties continue to grow about the durability of the power and influence of the globe’s leading liberal democracies. In that context, messaging that both emphasises the threat that China’s Party-state poses and the risk of a dramatic decline in the power and influence of the liberal democratic world will find a willing audience.
As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections very much appreciated.