The Morrison government’s recent indisciplined commentary on the possibility of Australian military engagement in a future US-China war over Taiwan is both politically juvenile and potentially damaging to our core national security interests.
For 50 years, successive Australian governments have not speculated publicly on what Australia would do in the event of a military crisis or conflict over Taiwan. Scott Morrison, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and aspiring defence secretary Michael Pezzullo have spectacularly breached that bipartisan convention over the past fortnight. Classified military briefings have also been leaked. These three have sought to deflect criticism over the precise parsing of their language, but the net effect has been to elevate the idea of a looming war – and Australia’s probable involvement in it – as the focus of the already dysfunctional Australia-China relationship.
Previous Australian governments have been tight-lipped about potential Taiwan military scenarios for good reason. Such a conflict would involve the world’s two biggest militaries and likely become the most violent and destructive war in Asia since 1945. Given the horrendous choices that would present the government of the day, Australia should not at this stage compromise the independence and flexibility of our national decision-making. And nobody can predict with any certainty which scenarios might arise between cyberattack, maritime blockade, territorial invasion or something else entirely.
In Canberra, Washington, Beijing and Taipei, our officials have done everything possible to
prevent any such war from occurring while also forestalling any change to the status quo through the application of Chinese coercion. With Washington, our aim has been to ensure the US has sufficient military deterrence in the region to cause China to defer its longheld ambition to take Taiwan – if necessary by force. In Beijing, we have encouraged China to conclude Washington is determined to defend Taiwan – not least because, if the US failed to act, it would destroy American credibility among its other allies. As for Taipei, we have sought to discourage successive Taiwanese governments from any unilateral declarations of independence (or steps in that direction) that would cross Beijing’s most fundamental red lines.
The Morrison government’s adolescent chest-thumping over Taiwan has perplexed the Americans, infuriated the Chinese, puzzled the Taiwanese and bamboozled most of the region. Only seven weeks ago, Joe Biden’s secretary of state Antony Blinken met with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi and reportedly intervened on behalf of US allies like Australia, which had been on the receiving end of Chinese economic thuggery. China’s anti-Australian rhetoric had begun to moderate in the weeks following that – at least until Morrison decided to unleash on Victoria over its nebulous and non-binding MOUs on the Belt and Road initiative, followed by this most recent rhetorical fusillade over Taiwan. Taiwan’s own foreign minister Joseph Wu on Wednesday discounted the idea of imminent war. And most of the rest of the region sees Australia’s extravagant public language as spoiling for a political fight with China whereas countries like Japan have systematically consolidated their position with the new US Administration while keeping relations with Beijing on as even a public keel as possible.
So why have Morrison, Dutton and associates pubicaly signalled “Code Red” over Taiwan? It’s inconceivable that national security agencies in Canberra recommended this as it serves no national interests. Developing detailed, classified diplomatic and military plans for various Taiwan contingencies is prudent strategic planning. Shooting your mouth off about war in the Taiwan Straits is not. In fact, it’s strategically counterproductive.
The only conceivable motive is that the government is determined to fight a khaki election, given the vaccine and quarantine programs are a mess, its credentials with women lie in tatters, and old faithful “debt and deficit” is now rendered toothless given that debt and deficit figures are seven-times bigger than when Labor left office. For the Liberals, China is the best camouflage on offer to wedge Labor as a bunch of pro-commie, peacenik appeasers. Never mind that Morrison can’t even speak to Neil Mitchell without confusing Taiwan and Hong Kong; never mind that Morrison as treasurer allowed the sale of the Port of Darwin to the Chinese; and never mind how the Liberals led the charge into war in Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.
Then there’s the worst-kept secret in Canberra: the undeclared leadership battle between Dutton and Morrison, where the former views China as the best vehicle to outflank the latter within the Liberal party room. It’s obscene: playing roulette with our core national economic and security interests with the US, China and Taiwan for pure political gain.