A war over Taiwan
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi. This is 7am.
In recent weeks the world’s two superpowers, China and the United States, have been steadily building up their military presence in the Taiwan Strait, a small passage that separates China from the island nation of Taiwan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear that he wants to bring Taiwan back under China’s control - a move the United States seems likely to resist at all costs.
Today, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Hugh White on how Australia could be drawn into a war over Taiwan, and why it could turn nuclear.
It’s Tuesday October 26.
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Hugh, over the last few weeks, there's been a significant escalation in tension in the Taiwan Strait, this narrow body of water that separates China from Taiwan. Can you talk me through what exactly has been going on there?
Well, if we look at the developments over the last few weeks, what we've seen is the continuation of a pattern which is actually pretty long standing.
Whereby China and the United States are both trying to use military deployments to demonstrate their resolve in relation to the Taiwan issue.
Archival tape -- News report:
“The Taiwan Strait is on high alert amid back to back military activity by the US and China.”
And so what we've seen, for example, in the last just the last couple of weeks is a big US naval deployment just in the waters on the eastern side of Taiwan.
Archival tape -- News report:
“Washington, Beijing tensions escalate after an American warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday.”
And the Chinese have responded to that by a really large scale incursion of Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan's air defence identification zone.
Archival tape -- News report:
“In which nearly a hundred and fifty Chinese warplanes flew into Taiwan's air defence zone and has blamed rising tension on the presence of U.S. and allied warships in the region. So how serious is this?”
At one level, they’re kind of symbolic gestures. It doesn't actually feel like they're preparing for war in the sort of short term, but it is clearly on both sides intended as a demonstration of resolve to use force if necessary, to achieve their objectives.
And that does make the situation inherently quite dangerous because what underlies that is a very deep contest between America and China that is not just about the future of Taiwan, though that's very important, but it's also about the future of American power in Asia, the future of China's role in Asia, which of them will be the dominant power. And so that's a really big, long term sort of historic grand strategic question.
Can you tell me a bit about the background here Hugh - how did Taiwan become the centre of this conflict between these two big military powers?
Yeah. Well, Osman, that's a really good question because that really goes all the way back into the late 19th century, when it was part of the Qing empire, China Empire, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese took it off the Chinese in the first of the Japan-China wars in 1894/1895. And so it's a very emotive issue from China's point of view.
“Britain, America and China expressed their resolve to exert unrelenting pressure on Japan, compelling her to disgorge the territory she has seized and occupied.”
And then at the end of the Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists. After World War Two, 1949, the Communists won the Civil War became the Red China we know today.
Archival tape -- 1950s documentary:
“October 1st, 1949, in Peking, Mao Zedong inaugurates the so-called Chinese People's Republic. The communist victory, celebrated with a display of captured American arms…”
And Taiwan was the which was the key bit of of the old China, which the Communists did not get hold of.
And that was a highly authoritarian regime itself under Chiang Kai shek.
Archival tape -- 1950s documentary:
“In December 1949, Chiang Kai shek and the nationalist government flee to the independent island of Formosa, 100 miles from the China mainland. The future remains uncertain…”
And that had a huge effect, particularly in America. America felt that China, before the Communists won it had been a big strategic asset to them in the Emerging Cold War, and there was a lot of anxiety in Washington about having lost to China.
And Taiwan was the bit of China that America hadn't lost. And so denying Taiwan to the communists became a really key symbolic feature of America's position in Asia as long as they could deny Taiwan to the Communists, America could still present itself as the primary power in the western Pacific.
Ok, so for China Taiwan represents unfinished business in terms of reunifying the country, while the United States sees Taiwan as a kind of anti-Communist outpost in the Asia Pacific region. What’s been happening more recently in Taiwan in the lead up to this escalation?
Well, the really important developments because in the 1990s, after Chiang Kai shek died, Taiwan experienced one of these remarkable transformations to democracy. Today and indeed now. For 25 years, Taiwan has been a vigorous, very lively, highly contested democracy. Under the democratic system the Taiwanese have started to think of themselves as just another country separate from China. But it's never been able to fully claim independence.
You know, for a long time, the Chinese seem to be content just to wait and allow things to develop. But now, with a new generation of Chinese leadership, and now that China is much more powerful, you know, there is arguably something more personal in that for Xi Jinping himself.
Archival tape -- BBC report:
“We start in China, where President Xi Jinping has said reunification with Taiwan must be fulfilled. His comments come at a time of heightened military tension in the region.”
I think Xi Jingping would like to enshrine his place in Chinese history by being the guy who gets Taiwan back.
Archival tape -- Xi Jinping:
“Unification is the hope of all Chinese people.
If China can't unify, everyone will suffer.”
To reclaim Taiwan, as he would put it. To conclude, finally, the Civil War after 70 years to bring that sort of culmination of China's re-emergence would not just be very significant in itself. It would also be a way to reaffirm China's emergence as the primary power in Asia because it would be a defeat for America.
So, Hugh it sounds like this fight over Taiwan is a way for China, and really Xi Jiping himself, to reassert dominance and power. But how much do you think the US is willing to actually put on the line here to counter China and Xi? And how likely are things to escalate even further than the military build up we’ve seen so far?
Well the good news is that neither side wants to go to war over Taiwan.
But the bad news is that both sides think they can get what they want without going to war because I think the other side will back down.
And what makes the situation dangerous is that both sides think they can get what they want without fighting a war because the other side will back off, then neither side backs off.
And they both, as a crisis escalates much forward into a war until they reach the point of no return.
It is very bleak, and in particularly, it's bleak because I think far too little attention is paid to the fact that this would be a war between great powers and they're very rare. We haven't had a serious war between great powers since 1945.
And there's also a war between nuclear armed powers.
My own view is that a war between the US and China would be quite likely to become a nuclear war.
It would be a nightmare.
We’ll be back after this.
Hugh, Australia recently announced a new military alliance with the United States - the AUKUS agreement. How does that increase our chances of being drawn into a potential conflict over Taiwan - a conflict that you say could be the most serious war since World War II?
Look, I think the really significant driver of Australia's positioning in this is not so much the racially announced orcas understanding, but the ANZUS treaty, which is 70 years old.
You know, the ANZUS treaty does commit Australia and America to support one another if either of them are attacked in the Pacific area. That's the phrase the the treaty uses.
The scholars and lawyers debate whether the treaty was ever actually intended to cover Taiwan back when it was signed in 1951, if America went to war with China over Taiwan. Washington would certainly expect Australia to contribute and to contribute in a big way, not the kind of relatively small contribution we made towards, like Iraq and Afghanistan, but really all in.
So the United States has this expectation that Australia will get involved and fight alongside them in a war over Taiwan. What does the Australian government think about that?
The government has, well, I should say successive governments have been ambivalent about whether or not they regarded the ANZUS treaty as applied to Taiwan. But in the last few years, even the last few months, as Australia's relationship with China has deteriorated, and as with things like the AUKUS arrangement that you mentioned, we have identified ourselves as more and more closely with America's position in relation to China.
Archival tape -- Peter Dutton:
“So we turn our attention now, Mr Speaker, to the Indo-Pacific region, and we know that there is greater uncertainty in this region than at any time since the Second World War. And it is more important than ever for countries in our region to see the rock that is the relationship between the United States, our country.”
I think the Australian government has edged towards being more forthcoming and in defining the fact that it would be willing to go to war. And we've seen, for example, although you know, Peter Dutton, the defence minister, hasn't actually said that in so many words, he has warned of the risk of conflict in Asia. He's warned about the risk of conflict over Taiwan.
Archival tape -- Peter Dutton:
“and with uncertainty in our region now. Mr Speaker, the Australian public knows that our aims this alliance is more important now than it even was 70 years ago.”
Ok so Peter Dutton seems quite resigned to the fact Australia, might end up in a conflict over Taiwan. What has the Prime Minister been saying?
Well, Scott Morrison a little while ago talked about the situation in relation to Taiwan using the phrase ‘one country, two systems.’
Archival tape -- 3AW Interview:
“Prime Minister I might quickly... something else. China, the Taiwanese foreign minister. Financial Review today says Taiwan is getting ready for a final assault from China. He wants our support. Do we stand with Taiwan?”
Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Look, we've always honoured all of our arrangements in the Indo-Pacific, particularly our alliance with the United States. We have always understood the one system, two countries arrangement, and we will continue to follow our policies there. So does that mean we stand with one country, two systems, I should say.”
Now that's the phrase the sort of special diplomatic phrase which has been used to describe the relationship between Hong Kong and China.
What I think Scott Morrison was trying to refer to was the one China policy, which is the kind of again, the diplomatic term of art, which is used to describe the fact that we and other countries who have diplomatic relations with China do not see there as being two Chinas, but only one China and leaving it a bit ambiguous, which China is which.
So I think Scott Morrison was just confused about the diplomatic technicalities on that one. But it was a little bit unsettling to to hear the prime minister so unclear on something which is likely to be so important in the next few months and years.
Yeah, Hugh, I'm kind of struck by the fact that we're talking about what could be the biggest conflict in half a century or more, it has the potential to go nuclear. It has the potential to draw in Australia because of our proximity and our alliances with the United States and our prime minister is confusing our policy on Taiwan with our policy on Hong Kong. That doesn't necessarily fill me with a lot of confidence.
No, look, I think I think that's entirely entirely legitimate. I don't get the impression that the government has thought very carefully about this, and I'm much more broadly, I don't think the government has really thought very carefully about the whole question about how we manage our relations with China and how we position ourselves between America and China in what is becoming one of the most complex and difficult and important strategic contests in Australia's history.
But there's no real evidence that either he or his Foreign Minister or defence minister are really asking themselves, How is this going to affect us? What can we do to reduce the risk of this crisis getting out of hand? How can we position Australia best to deal with this? They seem to be sort of content to be drawn into it by the actions of others. And to me, that's not the action of an effective and responsible government.
So our government is not asking those questions about how we can de-escalate the situation. But what do you think we could be doing and do you think there's a chance that that de-escalation can actually occur?
Look, I don't think there's much prospect of a significant de-escalation in the crisis around Taiwan itself. I think Beijing's determination to achieve reunification sooner rather than later. America's determination to stop that makes that situation extremely intractable.
But I do think we're we need to be thinking is the broader question which and that is the question of what is the nature of the US-China relationship in the long term.
In the end, the thing that makes the Taiwan issue so dangerous is is that it's become the focus of the kind of, you know, a token, the pawn in this wider US-China contest.
And you know, Australia's position on that seems to be from what the government says that we simply expect and intend and hope that the United States will succeed in pushing China back into a box and reasserting its dominance and forcing China to accept America as the primary power in Asia.
Hugh, I'm going to be honest with you. This conversation has made me more than a bit terrified, but thank you for explaining the situation to me.
Well, it is a pretty serious situation, and it's nice to have a chance to talk it over.
Also in the news today...
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that Federal resources minister Keith Pitt will become the fifth member of the National party to join the cabinet, Pitt’s appointment follows a secret deal struck by Morrison and the Nationals on climate policy.
Keith Pitt is known for his pro-coal industry views, and has been an outspoken critic of the government's plan to adopt a net zero emissions target.
And Israel has announced plans to build over thirteen hundred new residences for settlers in the occupied West Bank. The settlements are considered illegal under international law with US President Joe Biden previously declaring his opposition to their construction.
I'm Osman Faruqi, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.
In recent weeks the world’s two superpowers, China and the United States, have been steadily building up their military presence in the Taiwan Strait.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear that he wants to bring Taiwan back under China’s control, a move the United States seems likely to resist at all costs.
Today, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University Hugh White on how Australia could be drawn into a war over Taiwan, and why it could turn nuclear.
Guest: Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Hugh White.
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.
Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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