The Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, seemed quietly confident this week that Australia would be standing side-by-side with the US and Taiwan if China attempted to retrieve its errant and rebellious province by force of arms. Perhaps he knows something I don't.
But then again, I always worry the US military doesn't know, or appreciate, something that I do. The US, with or without Australia, or even a substantial contribution of the western alliance by its side, would be unable to make any decisive intervention that could defeat China. Unless they used nuclear weapons, which one can be reasonably sure they would not do. If one side or the other did use nuclear weapons, the question of who "won" the war would be entirely academic.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan by crossing the Taiwan Strait would be very difficult and dangerous, and fiercely resisted by Taiwanese and their allies. It would be even more difficult if the US were shelling and firing missiles at invasion ships from its own navy on the other side of the strait. The more directly US soldiers, or US aircraft or ships are involved in the actual conflict, the more likely it is China will turn their fight into a local battle against the US, with consequences no one could predict.
Similarly, if the US was able to sustain a supply line of weapons and missiles to the Taiwanese, the citizens of that country might well be able to fight to a stalemate. It's like the war in Ukraine which is slowly losing ground to the invading Russians. The ready supplies of western firepower may well sustain them until the Russian will to fight on dies, though there is no sign of this happening in the short term. But resupply of Taiwan, whether by sea or by air involves a serious risk of interception from China, including by Chinese submarines and missiles.
The US has many more military resources than China, and in one sense the advantage, like the Soviet Union during the German invasion of 1941, of having vast industrial resources well away from the conflict. But that advantage is also a great disadvantage. China's military might be less than 200 kilometres away from where its troops would be landing. It could support its invading troops with shellfire and missiles from the Chinese coast, and supply and reinforce them. Even if they underestimate the resistance and the resources of the Taiwanese, the Peoples Liberation Army is more than capable of making up its losses. After a point, the Taiwanese will not be able to unless the US and its allies fight by the same rules.
But that might be playing right into China's hands. China wants to "liberate" Taiwan. It also has some interest in showing the US is not as powerful as it pretends. But its grand strategy is about a readjustment of power and influence over the western Pacific and the South China Sea. As China sees it, this is not an aggressive strategy of throwing its weight around. It is simply a demand that its size, its growth, and its intrinsic power - particularly vis a vis the US - be recognised and acknowledged by the US, and the neighbourhood. In the short term, it wants a readjustment which makes the US face the reality of its declining local power. In the longer term, it wants the US right out of the region, and to fill the gap.
By no means does this changed hegemony necessarily imply China will then exert its power to invade and control nations of Southeast Asia and the Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand). Nor does it mean that it will move straight into direct conflict or bullying behaviour with other substantial local nations, such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia and India, or smaller ones such as Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Myanmar.
China wants to be recognised as the leading power, and the leader, of the region, filling the vacuum caused by American retreat. That includes a policeman role focused at "reducing instability" while pretending to adhere to its rule of not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. The problem for those who do not like what is occurring, or who fear a more dominant China is this is already the new reality. China is not an invading external gang seeking to drive the existing and controlling gang out of the neighbourhood. It's already here, and indeed is more established in the neighbourhood than Australia's great and powerful friend of old. The old gang has become tired, and while still enormously powerful (in most ways still more than the new pretender), its power is waning. Its willingness to maintain the tasks of leadership is in doubt.
US Speaker Nancy Pelosi's defiance in going to Taiwan against President Joe Biden's wishes has raised further doubts about whether the US knew what it was doing, had a common strategy, or meant what one or the other said.
Even those who dread the prospect of Chinese hegemony keep an anxious look over their shoulders because they doubt America's capacity and will to remain in the region.
Least of all do they assume America is up to the task of defending Taiwan. China itself has always threatened to invade and re-unite Taiwan with the mainland. The recent shrillness and games of chicken in the Strait are partly bluster, but so too is the tough talk coming from the US and other nations about the retaliation and consequences if China breaches the peace. As China sees it, this is almost daring them to invade.
America has long used the phrase "strategic ambiguity" to describe its position on China and Taiwan. It recognises the official Chinese (and Taiwanese) position that Taiwan is part of the one China, though it has always insisted reunification, if it is to occur, must be peaceful. As a part of this, it has supplied a heavily armed Taiwan with defensive weapons, to make sure that the cost of any forced reunification would be very high.
Once Taiwan officially wanted to be recognised as an autonomous self-governed region recognising Chinese sovereignty, but like Hong Kong, suffered to have its own government and system of law, and to trade on its own account. China's recent heavy-handed intervention in Hong Kong has collapsed confidence in Chinese promises and guarantees. It has also reinforced the feeling China will not be restrained in any invasion by world opinion, boycotts or embargoes. China has consistently insisted Taiwan (like Hong Kong) is an internal matter, and that exercising its sovereign rights does not involve interference in another nation's affairs. Indeed, despite the consistent claim by the western commentariat, particularly as it has been softening up public opinion for armed conflict, there has been no recent pattern of China straying outside its boundaries, other than in respect of territory, such as islands, it has always insisted were its own. America, and the white western world, cannot claim the same. Fortifying an island or filling in a reef on real estate it regards as its own, is not of itself a proof of aggressive intentions.
The purpose of strategic ambiguity has been to leave China uncertain about just how America and the west would react if Taiwan were invaded. A few hotheads - sadly including Pelosi this week - will be suffered to assert or imply that invasion would be war, with doughboys in the Taiwanese trenches alongside the Taiwanese. Even Biden has said this too, before his statement was officially "clarified.
China can only guess how America will respond but has been put in no doubt that the reaction would be very tough and might well involve direct conflict. The US is doing its best to insist it means business and is not bluffing. It doesn't want to fight, but, by heck, it will if it is forced to, if initially with one hand tied behind its back. The hand behind its back involves the question of nuclear weapons, strategic or tactical, and the direct involvement of US military force, particularly ships, including submarines, aircraft and electronic warfare.
China, of course, has the same potential to use such weapons of war. One side might miscalculate or misinterpret enemy action and suddenly escalate a contained struggle into all-out war, perhaps nuclear war. An invisible line drawn in the sand by one side might dramatically change the nature of the conflict. If it comes to invasion, both major players might initially avoid direct attacks on each other. That is, they may use Taiwan as the battleground, with Taiwanese with American weapons engaged against the Chinese. That's like America and NATO in Ukraine, avoiding being in direct conflict with Russians.
Both sides are aware of the risks, including of the conflict being ratcheted up by miscalculation or misunderstanding. That does not mean they have a common understanding of the unspoken limits. Nor can they assume each has the same interest in limiting the confrontation. That, no doubt is why General Mark Milley has been talking with the PLA in recent times. He is, of course, trying to urge restraint, and promising it from his own side. He wants, presumably, to reduce the risk of war, unlike some Americans and some Australians who give every impression of hanging out for it. But even then, he must play a delicate game. As he talks peace, he wants China to understand the cost of invasion will be very high, probably higher than it has imagined.
Australian involvement poses a special risk. Informally, the US may regard an attack on Australians as not the same as an attack on Americans. In the Cold War, the Soviets never actually fought Americans. It got very close in Cubs and Berlin. There was virtually non-stop war between the sides through surrogates. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1981, America and Pakistan armed the mujaheddin (and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda) to fight a sophisticated guerrilla war against the USSR.
When the US under John Kennedy became enmeshed in Vietnam Russia's aim was to supply the Vietnamese with just enough guns and resources (at a cost to Russia of about what the war was costing Australia) to keep the Americans bogged down, bleeding blood and treasure. Russia's purposes were better served by a stalemate than a victory. That was much the same in Korea in 1951, until the Americans made a colossal miscalculation and drove towards the Yalu River, bordering China. That brought China into the war, disastrously for the Allies. Even now, 70 years later, Korea is divided by armistice lines. In the Middle East, Russia fought the US by proxy, and sometimes by proxies against proxies.
Throughout that period, the US has not won a single war. Except perhaps in 1983 when about 8000 soldiers invaded Grenada to take on several score of Cuban soldiers, in what the United Nations, by a vote of 108 to nine, with 27 abstentions, declared to be "a flagrant violation of international law". It has won some individual battles but has left Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Somalia after virtual defeat. Its most loyal allies, including Australia, have gone along to show solidarity with a country they hope will one day help defend them, even when their own interests have not been engaged.
We are talking about getting involved in a conflict America and its allies cannot possibly win, and from which we cannot possibly benefit, whatever happens.
Those who have watched such debacles, Taiwanese as much as Chinese, or for that matter ASEAN nationals, Indians, Japanese and Russians, can be forgiven some cynicism about whether American might is irresistible. Or whether, in flexibly and nimbly defending its own interests from day to day, America will always look after its allies. Consider, for example, the Kurds.
The significance of this is China might be properly cautious about direct attacks on its principal enemy, the US. But this might not translate into restraint on the enemy's allies, least of all when some of those allies, such as Australia, have gone out of their way to be obnoxious and offensive and have seemed to be shilling for war. Some of the most hostile commentaries in the mainstream print media pretend a benign Australia was quietly poking along when it was suddenly beset by a threatening bullying, boycotting bruiser. The war of words, and most of the trade actions were consciously provoked by Australia, sometimes for local partisan political agendas. When, moreover, China barred some imports from Australia, America did not hesitate to fill the gap.
We spoke too loudly, especially given we had a small, almost contemptible, stick. Our habit of poking the bear in the eye has led to bitter words, reproaches and insinuations Australia is promoting an American agenda, not its own quite different interests. It has also created an environment here in which politicians and observers are forced to acknowledge the sharp tones and raw anger, and fear of being thought weak, or disloyal, if they call for moderation, dialogue and restraint. An array of Australia's intelligence institutions, though oddly not our armed forces, are now acting as if China were a declared enemy, of undoubted sinister intent, and with every person of Chinese heritage a likely Chinese spy.
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The new Labor government has been very worried about how efforts to tone down the rhetoric will be interpreted domestically. Are they being cowed, or bribed? Are they sacrificing Australian sovereignty for resumed trade and peace? Are they appeasing a totalitarian country which maintains a surveillance state and persecutes its minority? Is a failure to stand 100 per cent alongside Taiwan a betrayal of freedom-loving folk elsewhere?
The problem is not merely of yet again blindly following the US when our interests diverge, knowing when America does eventually withdraw, we will still have to get along with our neighbours. We are talking about getting involved in a conflict America and its allies cannot possibly win, and from which we cannot possibly benefit, whatever happens. Conflict is by no means inevitable, or imminent, but we are lending ourselves to, sometimes applauding, empty rhetoric that is making it more likely. It's not yet Labor's fault, but it soon will be.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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