• A file photo of the aftermath of an explosive ordnance disposal mission during the Gulf War in 1991.
Defence/unknown photographer
    A file photo of the aftermath of an explosive ordnance disposal mission during the Gulf War in 1991. Defence/unknown photographer

The deterioration of Australian relations with China over the past year are well-documented, ranging from tariffs on major exports to lists of demands and frozen diplomacy. In some quarters this rapid decline is seen as an accelerant towards an open conflict with China.

Peter Jennings, ASPI’s executive director, has said that Australia must be prepared to ‘fight our corner’ as the Chinese Communist Party looks to retake Taiwan by 2049, the centenary of its rule.

“Whatever Biden does about Taiwan, he will expect Japan and Australia to be there,” Jennings said. “There is no exit strategy from our own region.”

Perhaps most concerning is that a Taiwan contingency is no longer the worst-case scenario for Australia as the potential for conflict expands further. In his memoir, as an example, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he worried about the possibility of losing a RAN warship in the South China Sea.

“The People’s Liberation Army Navy knows that if it conflicts with a US ship, it runs the risk of rapid escalation into full-blown conflict,” Turnbull wrote. “But an Australian ship is a different proposition altogether.”

As talk of a war with China grows louder, at times it seems we’re almost resigned to the possibility, or desensitised to it, as if open battle with a nuclear-armed superpower in the next three decades is a foregone conclusion. But that may not be the case.

“We’re not going to wake up tomorrow morning and China’s unilaterally decided to attack Australia,” Andrew Davies, ASPI Senior Fellow and former Director of the Defence and Strategy Program, said to ADM. “There’s zero chance of that. Everything we’ve seen about Chinese aggression and assertiveness in the last few years has been in the grey zone. It’s really hard to see them suddenly upping the stakes, especially against an American ally. It’s a very dangerous game for them.”

According to Davies, the US may not actually defend Taiwan should Beijing attempt forceful reunification.

“The only thing that would cement America’s position as a major power in the western Pacific would be to fight a war and convincingly win it,” Davies said. “As the risk/reward for the US gets progressively worse in the Taiwan Strait, it becomes harder and harder for the US to convince itself [to go to war].

“Analysts often say that the Chinese Communist Party can’t afford to fight a war and lose - in terms of its credibility and the narrative it tells its people - but to some extent that’s true of the US as well.”

Some would make the counter-argument that the US can’t afford to surrender Taiwan given the implications that would have on its security guarantees for other nations, including Australia. But Davies argues the nature of Washington’s relationship with Taipei may provide a plausible exit strategy.

“The US has always had a policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan,” Davies said. “They don’t have a treaty level relationship with Taiwan like they do with Japan or Korea or Australia.

“I don’t get clear answers talking to Americans about it. American naval strategists have said in the last five years [they] could fight and prevail in the Taiwan Strait. But that gets harder with every passing year.”

So if the possibility of Washington deciding to go to war over Taiwan is actually fading with time, what does that mean for Australia?

“I think we would be stupid to sleepwalk into a major war,” Davies said. “I’m almost as worried by the hawks as I am by the Chinese. We need to do some serious thinking about what an end state we could live with looks like. Chinese power is not going away.

"There’s 1.3 billion Chinese people, four times as many as there are Americans, so each Chinese person only has to be 25 per cent as productive as an American and the economy is the same size.”

And what might that end state look like?

“I don’t think we need to give China a blank cheque in terms of power and influence,” Davies said. “If it became clear that the West’s approach was to avoid conflicts at all cost, that’s probably an error too. It’s a balancing act.

“Teddy Roosevelt probably had it right; speak softly and carry a big stick.”

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