How Australia could get dragged into a war with China over Taiwan

As tension continues building between China and Taiwan, there are warnings the US - and subsequently Australia - could be pulled into any conflict within the next decade.

A soldier holds the Taiwan national flag during a military exercise in Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan, Tuesday, Jan, 19, 2021

A soldier holds the Taiwan national flag during a military exercise in Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan, Tuesday, Jan, 19, 2021 Source: AP

There are warnings a military conflict between the United States and China is growing in likelihood and could be a real possibility in the next five to 10 years.

In a speech at the University of Adelaide on Monday, former defence minister Christopher Pyne said the likelihood of a "kinetic war" in the Indo-Pacific was becoming higher, and the trigger that could pull the US - and subsequently Australia – into it was Chinese forces entering Taiwan.

"Five years ago, I would've said that the possibility was very unlikely, now I would have to say that the possibility is more likely than it was then," said Mr Pyne, who also served as defence industry minister during his time in politics.

“The reality is that China is confident and capable and is not embarrassed to show it. Most concerning of all, it has turned up the pressure on Taiwan - the most likely next flashpoint in the region.”

Why Taiwan?

Tensions are currently high on the island, which is home to almost 24 million people and situated to the east of China and north of Hong Kong. 

Over the past year, shows of military strength by Beijing there have increased considerably, with Chinese fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers breaching Taiwan's air defence zone on a near-daily basis. A record 25 Chinese military jets and bombers breached Taiwan's defence zone on Monday.

Since the 17th century, the island’s rule has gone from Indigenous people to Dutch colonisers, to China, to Japan and back to China.

In 1949, at the end of the civil war, Chinese republic forces retreated to Taiwan as communist armies took control of the mainland. Republic forces controlled the island under military rule until democratic reforms in the 1980s.

AH-64E attack helicopters launch flares during the 36th Han Kuang (Chinese Glory) military exercise in Taichung, Taiwan, 16 July 2020
AH-64E attack helicopters launch flares during the 36th Han Kuang (Chinese Glory) military exercise in Taichung, Taiwan, 16 July 2020 Source: AP

Today, Taiwan lives under the threat of invasion by China, which has vowed to one day seize the island, by force if needed.

Malcolm Davies, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says China wants Taiwan back under its control.

“The Chinese government sees Taiwan as lost territory," he told SBS News.

"The Taiwanese people on the other hand do not see themselves as Chinese. They see themselves as Taiwanese and there is not much support on Taiwan for unification, so China will force unification, even if it is through use of military force."

Why does this matter to Australia?

The US Congress has promised to defend Taiwan if its future is not determined via peaceful or diplomatic means. 

The US has diplomatically recognised China over Taiwan since 1979. But it maintains relations with Taipei and is bound by an act of Congress to sell the island defensive weapons. It also opposes any attempt by China to change Taiwan's future by force.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it would be “a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo” in the region.

“We are bound by a moral obligation and also a matter of legislation to help Taiwan with its legitimate self-defence needs," Mike Goldman, the US's top diplomat in Australia, told the Australian National University's National Security Podcast this month.

That commitment to helping Taiwan could be what gets Australia to spring into action and help its ally.

“If the US chose not to intervene as Taiwan was being invaded by China, their credibility would be gone. That would be seen by Japan, Australia and others that the US [might] not come to their aid in the event of a crisis with China,” Dr Davies said. 

And in the same vein, Dr Davies said, Australia would have to come to the aid of the US.

“It is inconceivable that Australia would stand back and look on passively as our ally was basically engaged in combat with China. It is much more likely than not Australia would assist the US directly through military measures and support,” he said.

Why could conflict be five years away?

Last month, Admiral Philip Davidson, a top US commander, told a US Congress committee he believed China could invade Taiwan in the next six years given the way things were going.

Dr Davies said the timeline might also be contingent on China's naval capacity, which he said might not be ready for an invasion for another five to six years.

“The operation would be a complex one, to deploy forces through the Taiwan Strait, to essentially gain a beachhead on the shore of Taiwan and then move inland,” he said

“The Chinese military, although they are modernising very quickly, they are still lagging behind in terms of that amphibious capability to be able to operate across the Strait.

“That’s what is going to take them that five to six-year period.”

SBS News sought comment from Defence Minister Peter Dutton and the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.

Additional reporting by AFP.

5 min read
Published 14 April 2021 at 7:44pm
By Lucy Murray