What's going on between Taiwan and China, and does it affect Australia?

The potential for conflict between Taiwan and China is nothing new for Taiwanese-Australians, but recent Chinese military aggression has sparked concerns that the situation could escalate.

A Chinese PLA Shenyang J-16 fighter, one of nineteen Chinese PLA warplanes that entered Taiwan's air defence zone on 2 October 2021.

A Chinese PLA Shenyang J-16 fighter, one of nineteen Chinese PLA warplanes that entered Taiwan's air defence zone on 2 October 2021. Source: AP

Tensions between Taiwan and China have escalated in recent weeks, with the continuing fallout bringing ties between Australia and the self-ruled island seemingly closer.

Taiwan has expressed deep concerns over recent Chinese military aggression, which has prompted fears over the potential for conflict.

Against this backdrop, the Australian government says it wants to strengthen ties with Taiwan, describing it as a "critical partner". 

Relations between China and Taiwan have further deteriorated over the past week as a record number of Chinese air force planes have flown into Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).

Taiwan reported around 150 Chinese air force planes in the southern and southwestern part of its ADIZ over a four-day period beginning on 1 October. 

The air incursions prompted concerns from Australia, the United States and Japan, who have warned against provocative moves being made by Beijing.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory, which should be taken by force if necessary. Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy, blaming China for the tensions.

Why is Australia getting involved?

While Australia doesn't formally recognise the self-governed island as a sovereign state, it does support unofficial ties with Taiwan, which is the nation’s 12th largest trading partner.

Macquarie University political expert Roger Lee Huang told SBS News while Australia’s official position had not changed, the signal being sent from the Australian government in recent weeks is clear.

“Australia has been more clear in how they consider Taiwan as being critical in [it’s] geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific," he said.

“This is something that is shifting in the Australian paradigm." 

Has Australia’s relationship with Taiwan changed?

Australia has not formally recognised Taiwan’s independence since establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972.

Adhering to China’s “one-China policy”, the Australian government has instead continued ties with Taiwan on an unofficial basis.

But the Morrison government has recently shifted its focus on its relationship with Taiwan, last month pledging with the US to strengthen ties with the island by emphasising its "important role in the Indo-Pacific region … as a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries”.

The declaration was made in high-level Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) meetings between Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and their United States counterparts. 

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu on Monday also urged Australia to consider increasing intelligence sharing and security cooperation as part of these efforts.

Dr Huang said the request was a logical progression for the relationship between Taiwan and Australia.

“If we were to take this in a real, serious, meaningful relationship, that should include more military exchanges [and] sharing of intelligence between Taiwan and Australia,” he said. 

What is Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific?

The signal of intent comes as Australia recently signed up to the defence and technology sharing pact known as AUKUS with the United States and Britain.

The deal has drawn the ire of Beijing, which has accused the move of fuelling an arms race, including the sharing of nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia. 

The defence pact has been characterised as recognising Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific region to act as a kind of deputy sheriff on behalf of the United States.

“It is very clear that this is an upgrade in security networks to address Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific over the last several years,” said Dr Huang.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Michael Shoebridge told SBS News it was critical countries support Taiwan politically, economically and strategically.

“Taiwan is an important intelligence partner,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“They're getting more important, as [President] Xi closes Beijing down to outside engagement, and makes it a harder intelligence target.”

How real is the threat of conflict?

Beijing blames the United States for military tensions with Taiwan, pointing to its arms sales and support for the self-ruled island.

But China President Xi Jinping's past comments describing the seizure of Taiwan as "inevitable" have only fueled concerns over the prospect of conflict across the strait.

The current situation continues to prompt concern from Taiwanese-Australians, despite being familiar with fraught tensions in the relationship.

“We are certainly concerned about the current developments,” Austin Tuon, president of the Australian Taiwanese Friendship Association said.

“Having said that, it’s not something that we have not seen before.”

Members of the Taiwanese-Australian community rally in support of Taiwan joining the World Health Organization in May.
Source: David Field

Despite this, Taiwan’s Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng has described the current military tensions with China as at their worst level in four decades.

He’s also warned Beijing would be in a position to launch a full-scale invasion against Taipei in four years.

But Dr Huang said any conflict was not something that would happen imminently, and Beijing’s actions were as much about displaying its military power as mounting a direct invasion of Taiwan.

“These increased military activities is much more a grey zone tactic and part of this psychological warfare to undermine Taiwanese confidence,” he said.

The diplomatic fallout of these threats is also real with high-level talks held between US and Chinese officials on Wednesday addressing the current tensions.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement released following the meeting said: "The two sides agreed to take action ... to strengthen strategic communication, properly manage differences, avoid conflict and confrontation." 

What is the significance of the CTTP?

Aside from military tensions, Taiwan’s attempt to join the regional trade pact known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has also recently angered Beijing.

China has also applied to join the 11-member body which includes Australia, but Beijing is against the self-governed island being recognised in these types of multilateral bodies. 

Mr Tuon of the Australian Taiwanese Friendship Association said he hoped Australia would also support the application as part of efforts to draw closer ties with Taipei.

“Cultural connections, trade connections - we can achieve a lot by strengthening that,” he said.

Dr Huang added: “this is obviously not a military relationship but it allows again greater exchanges of technology as well.” 

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen watches former Prime Minister Tony Abbott meet in Taipei.
Source: Central News Agency Pool

Former prime minister Tony Abbott - who is visiting Taipei this week to address a regional forum in a “private capacity” - has also expressed support for Taiwan’s bid to join the trade group and argued Beijing’s concerns should not persuade a decision around its inclusion.  

Mr Abbott met with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday, where he called for democracies such as Australia to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Taipei.

"Of course not everyone and not everywhere is pleased at Taiwan's progress, and I do note that Taiwan is challenged on an almost daily basis by its giant neighbour," Mr Abbott said.

Ms Tsai had earlier said Taipei would work to ensure regional peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. 

"We will continue to fulfil our responsibilities as members of the international community to ensure peace and stability," she said.

Published 7 October 2021 at 6:33pm, updated 7 October 2021 at 7:11pm
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News