China’s military escalation over Taiwan this week shows the futility of the US’s plan for ‘guardrails’ to manage tensions, and the risk of Australia being led ever closer to war. By Hugh White.

Why Australia’s China strategy is dangerous

Mirage 2000 fighter jet taking off at a military base.
A Taiwanese air force Mirage 2000 fighter jet at a base in northern Taiwan on April 9.
Credit: Jameson Wu / AFP

United States president Joe Biden’s big idea on China has been to “seek competition, not conflict” by setting what he calls “guardrails” to stop US–China rivalry spiralling out of control. He has hoped to see both sides show restraint and a degree of mutual respect as a way of stopping the slide towards overt confrontation and to avert the risk of war. But it is not working.

Kurt Campbell, who as Asia supremo on the US National Security Council is the principal architect of Biden’s China policy, has frankly acknowledged this. “Our efforts to build a foundation or floor under the relationship and guardrails have yet to be successful,” he told a think tank event in Washington, DC, just a couple of weeks ago.

He has been proved right this past week, as China held another series of deliberately intimidating, large military manoeuvres around Taiwan, similar to the ones it conducted in August last year. Once again, Beijing has been intent on showing the world that it is serious about threats to use force to resist what it calls “separatism and external meddling” in Taiwan. These exercises, which included multiple flights by J-15 fighters from China’s aircraft carrier Shandong operating off Taiwan’s east coast, highlighted China’s capacity to blockade Taiwan – a much more credible military option for Beijing than outright invasion.

The military display followed an unusually bellicose series of speeches, including by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself, at last month’s National People’s Congress. Xi placed particular emphasis on “reunification” of Taiwan with the mainland, extolled China’s growing military power, and – in an unusual move – directly accused Washington of a campaign of “containment, encirclement and suppression” of China. His foreign minister, Qin Gang, went further. “If the US doesn’t step on the brakes but continues to speed up, no guardrail can stop the derailment,” he said.

This week’s military demonstrations were in response to an “unofficial” visit to America by Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, earlier this month, during which she met speaker of the US house of representatives Kevin McCarthy. Like the visit of his predecessor Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last year, this meeting is seen by Beijing as a major breach of the byzantine understandings over dealings with Taiwan that were reached four decades ago when Washington and Beijing established diplomatic relations.

The reality is that Washington is stepping up its support for Taiwan across the board as its rivalry with China grows. Biden himself has cast serious doubts on one key plank of American policy – “strategic ambiguity” about whether or not the US would help defend Taiwan from Chinese attack – by repeatedly stating categorically that it would. His words have grown in substance this week as the US conducts a major exercise of its own in the Philippines. This marks a new agreement by Manila to allow American forces to use bases in the Philippines, which would be vital to any US effort to defend Taiwan. Tellingly, the third country taking part in the exercise is Australia.

All this is plainly provocative to Beijing. Supporters of the approach argue – with some justice – that closer links and more overt support for Taiwan are necessary to help protect it from Beijing’s aggression. They say Washington’s moves are simply a response to China’s threats and intimidations. But of course the Chinese say the same about America, claiming that they are simply responding to what they see as US disregard of their longstanding agreements about dealings with Taiwan. There is some justice in their position too. Such is the rancorous logic of escalating rivalry: both sides see themselves as the victim, believing themselves forced to further antagonistic steps by the other’s actions.

It is the very opposite of the kind of trust- and confidence-building that would create the guardrails against conflict that Joe Biden claims to be seeking. His hope for “competition without conflict” bumps up against the awkward reality that constructing guardrails means taking Beijing’s concerns and priorities seriously, even when they clash with those of the US, and prudently stepping back and not responding to every Chinese provocation. But the American leadership cannot bring itself to do that. Instead it seems almost eager to find occasion for anger, as we saw earlier this year with the politically charged overreaction when a Chinese balloon violated US airspace.

Perhaps Biden and his colleagues are waiting for Beijing to make the first move. If so, they are waiting in vain, because Xi is no more likely to take the wise and statesmanlike steps needed to defuse tensions than the US is. So it is time to recognise the truth and significance of Kurt Campbell’s stark assessment. We cannot rely on guardrails – on prudence and mutual restraint from either side – to prevent the rivalry between America and China escalating to war.

Instead, we are relying on deterrence. We hear that word a lot these days: for example, in explaining and justifying AUKUS. It seems an appealingly simple and powerful idea: we can prevent war by making ourselves so strong militarily that our adversary will not dare to fight us.

But it is not that simple. It is not just that the steps we take to strengthen deterrence may threaten and provoke our adversary rather than intimidate them, making war more likely not less. The even bigger problem is that deterrence is a game that two can play. While we build up our forces, they are building up theirs. The danger is they think they can make us back-off, while we think we can make them do so. What if we are both wrong? That is how catastrophic wars start.

Glib talk of deterring China among the US and its allies overlooks the fact that Beijing’s military strength has been growing much faster than ours. There is no longer any reason to expect the US to score a swift, cheap victory in a war with China, and nothing that America’s strategic planning or ours envisages – including AUKUS submarines – will change that in the years ahead. Underlying the shift in the military balance is the fact that China has the immense advantage of being the local power in East Asia, and it cares more about Taiwan than the US and its allies do. The balance of resolve is on China’s side.

All of this increases the risk that Xi Jinping will come to believe – or may already believe – that he can deter Joe Biden rather than the other way round. He may conclude that America, despite all Biden’s tough talk, will not fight to defend Taiwan because he is not willing to accept the costs and risks of such a major war. After all, if Biden is not willing to fight what he called “World War Three” for Ukraine, why should Xi expect him to fight an arguably bigger war over Taiwan? And if Xi believes that Biden – or his successor, perhaps Donald Trump – won’t fight, the temptation to move against Taiwan militarily would be high. It would be a resounding vindication of China’s rejuvenation as a great power and of Xi’s position as its triumphant leader.

Of course, the arguments against attacking Taiwan would be strong too. But such arguments do not always prevail. They didn’t stop Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine, after all, or George W. Bush invading Iraq. If American and Chinese leaders were much influenced by calm and rational assessments of their nations’ interests, they wouldn’t be stuck in the escalating rivalry we see today.

So the risk that China will attack Taiwan sometime over the next few years is quite high, and the pattern of provocation and counterprovocation we have seen this week means it is only getting higher. And if it happens, the US and its allies – including Australia – will have a big choice to make: to fight or not to fight. For Australia there are familiar and formidable arguments in favour of fighting, including the defence of Taiwan’s democracy, the preservation of the US-led strategic order in Asia, and the perpetuation of our alliance with America.

But the question cannot be settled without looking at the arguments on the other side. We must soberly assess the costs and consequences of a catastrophic war unlike anything we have seen since 1945, which would probably go nuclear. There would be no “winners” in that war, but it would almost certainly result in the destruction of precisely those things we hoped to preserve – Taiwan’s democracy, America’s leadership in Asia, and Australia’s US alliance.

It would be a terrible choice, and good statecraft is all about doing whatever we can to avoid such choices. Yet all Australia is doing to avert the risk of war is to tepidly endorse Biden’s futile calls for “guardrails”, while we talk up a strategy of “deterrence” that shows no signs of working. That is not enough.

French President Emmanuel Macron was much criticised this week for distancing himself from US policy on China and suggesting that Beijing’s concerns should not be too readily dismissed. History might well judge him more kindly, and our leaders could do worse than study his example.


Hugh White's essay, 'Penny Wong's next big fight' is in the April 2023 edition of The Monthly. You can read it here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2023 as "Australia’s China strategy is dangerous".

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