There was a moment of light relief towards the end of the Q&A following Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong’s address to the National Press Club on Monday. The Canberra Times’s Nicholas Stuart prefaced his question, the penultimate of the day, by commenting that it had been “a wonderful speech”, to which Wong quipped: “You’re the first person who’s said that. I was starting to get a bit paranoid.”
Stuart didn’t wait for her to finish her sentence before pressing on with heavier freight. Observing that no ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region were present for the speech, he revealed that one ambassador had told him they considered Australian foreign policy to be “useful idiocy or useful innocence”. By this, he said, they meant that “it was basically an attempt to try and draw the veil over the reality, which is that we are completely locked in with America. Discuss.”
The Foreign Affairs minister’s smile faded. “I refer to my speech.” She didn’t elaborate. It is true that in her talk she promoted the importance of a regional balance of power, and the need for Australia to interact with Asia-Pacific nations as “partners, not patriarchs”. She stated that “our job” was to “lower the heat on any potential conflict while increasing pressure on others to do the same”. However, and she called this a “reality check”, she insisted that the United States, our “closest ally and principle strategic partner”, was “indispensable” to balancing a multipolar region. What’s more, she said, we can’t leave the job to them alone. If there is going to be effective deterrence to war, including in the Taiwan Strait, it must be “collective”.
If Wong had a point, Stuart arguably had a sharper one, and it had two prongs. One is that the perception in the region is that we are “completely locked in” with the US, and this is not necessarily to our benefit. The other is the possibility that this is not just perception. Both pose challenges for Australia, ones we need to face squarely.
That’s a difficult task in the increasingly inflamed rhetorical environment sparked by the publication in the Nine newspapers of a series of commentaries and analysis under the title “Red Alert”. Their basic thesis was that Xi Jinping will try to take Taiwan by force within three years, and Australia must prepare for war with China. One contributor to the series even argued that Australia should be ready, in extremis, to host US nuclear-armed missiles, against our existing treaty obligations. The series certainly contributed to a broader perception – including in China itself – that we would “lock in” with the US in the case of conflict around Taiwan.
Paul Keating labelled “Red Alert” the most “egregious and provocative” presentation of news he’d seen in 50 years of public life. On ABC’s Media Watch, Paul Barry likened it to a “comic book sketch” in black and white. The war of words is hot and ongoing. Wong’s address to the Press Club, in which she appeared red-alerted but not unduly alarmed, didn’t quite place her in Switzerland, but our diplomat-in-chief declined to land all her platitudes on either shore.
Meanwhile, like smoke over a battlefield, Nicholas Stuart’s question lingers. What is the real story here? Illusion or reality? And what are the consequences in both cases – especially in a world where the US might not be able to count on full-throated support from the European Union if it does go to war with China over Taiwan? What is the likelihood that Pacific or ASEAN nations would support a US–Australian alliance in such a conflict?
The label of “useful innocence” or worse is a painful one. But it forces us to consider how readily Australia has followed the US into battle in the wars that have followed the close of World War II, answering Washington’s call in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. How did those turn out for those countries and for us? More than 900 Australians gave their lives in these conflicts, and thousands more suffered life-changing injuries. None of these wars were winnable, and that should have been obvious from the start.
A conventional war with China over Taiwan is unwinnable. In The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China, Kevin Rudd warns that you can’t calculate the military balance “purely on the basis of some mechanical, quantitative comparison of the Chinese and American order of battle” – numbers of ships and troops and so on. Other crucial, even decisive, factors include the “political will” to continue fighting. Xi Jinping has that in spades, having staked his legacy on “reunification”, and doesn’t have to answer to anyone outside the party he controls. Reunification has been the consistent goal and policy of the Communist Party since Chiang Kai-shek retreated with his troops and supporters to the island, himself vowing to “retake” China.
Taiwan’s later, more pragmatic leaders binned that idea. The Taiwanese today want to enjoy their hard-won democracy and freedom. They want to continue to flourish culturally and economically. They’d like to be treated with dignity and equality in the world. Even if some politicians and businesspeople desire closer economic and other links with the mainland, there’s next to zero inclination towards “reunification”. It’s also safe to say there’s little desire to become a pawn in a struggle between larger powers.
Washington’s Taiwan game is part of a larger strategy of containment. Yet it’s hard to imagine that any American administration – Democrat or Republican – would have an appetite for a prolonged and casualty-heavy foreign war.
Rudd notes that the “capabilities gap” between the US and Chinese armies is “narrowing in virtually all categories” and faster than US strategists had anticipated. According to his sources, in desktop wargaming “across a range of Taiwan scenarios” and in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, the US tends to lose, and repeatedly. One of the areas in which the capability gap is narrowing fastest is cyberwarfare – one of the People’s Liberation Army’s top priorities in its current modernisation program.
In reporting on China’s military aggression towards Taiwan during Nancy Pelosi’s visit last year, the media tended to focus on the live-fire drills conducted around the island’s coast, which demonstrated China’s ability to impose a blockade. But writing on thechinastory.org website, the cybersecurity analyst Lennon Yao-chung Chang describes actions that could be considered even more disturbing. These included co-ordinated denial of service attacks targeting both private and government websites, including those of Taiwan’s Office of the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also included hacking into the home screens of institutions such as the National Taiwan University and public screens at train stations and even convenience stores to project messages such as “There is only one China”. Ongoing Chinese cyberwarfare against Taiwan involves saturating Chinese-language social media with disinformation, misinformation and irrelevant distractions.
It’s plausible that this – blockade plus cyberwarfare – represents an outline of Beijing’s plans for taking Taiwan. Xi may have staked his reputation on reunification, but the Communist Party of China as a whole has staked its legitimacy in post-revolutionary times on its ability to increase China’s prosperity and standing in the world. A hot war and a big war threatens all of that. China also has no interest in providing the world with the kind of brutal imagery that has come out of Ukraine, in this case Chinese killing other Chinese. Nor does it want to risk accidental destruction of the world’s largest and most important microchip factory. It would prefer other means to force Taiwan first to its knees and then the negotiating table.
Today’s Hong Kong, in which civil society has been crushed and pro-democracy activists and China’s critics languish in jail, is Taiwan’s nightmare but it’s China’s dream. There’s no question that a forced takeover would be an absolute tragedy for Taiwanese human rights, including self-determination, but Taiwan must also know that the Chinese will fight to the finish if there is a war.
If the US jumps in, the conflict would expand. Washington will call on us for tactical support and however we answer that call we will put ourselves in the firing line. As casualties mount, the American public might sour on the war. Joe Biden or whoever succeeds him might well eventually decide to withdraw and leave the mess for others to clean up. Locked in, we will be part of the mess.
Should we not devote ourselves to a more constructive role – that of, as Wong put it, “lowering the heat”? That includes in Washington, where presenting “strategic ambiguity” as to our own willingness to get involved may give the warmongers there pause. We might want to cultivate a similar strategy in our dealings with China, to better establish our self-determination among superpowers. We can, meanwhile, support Taiwan to strengthen itself in such areas as cybersecurity. To be clear, I don’t want to see Taiwan forcibly united with China; that would be a tragedy. But if the US decides to go to war with China over it, and we follow, such a war would destroy our world.
Stanley Kubrick once remarked, “The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes.” Perhaps it’s time to give up the game. It will take a clear head, a good sense of history – and some spine.
Penny Wong’s next big fight by Hugh White, in The Monthly.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "On Penny Wong’s press club speech".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription