Written by Ek-hong Ljavakaw Sia.
Image credit: Flags of Australia + Sydney Harbour Bridge / Sydney by See-ming Lee/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0
Facing the common challenge that China is aggressively extending its “sphere of influence and coercion” to the Indo-Pacific region, there are good reasons for the two Pacific democracies to upgrade their partnership to the political-strategic level.
A Benign Partnership of Mutual Benefit and Shared Values
Few bilateral relationships between any other two countries in the world can be as balanced, reciprocal, and complementary as the Taiwan-Australia partnership. Located in the southernmost and westernmost parts of the Pacific, Australia and Taiwan have many features in common: nearly the exact size of the population, an equally prosperous economy, a vibrant civil society, and a healthy democratic polity.
Looking almost identical in shape and having common values in mind, both countries are known for their commitment to some shared ideals, such as multicultural diversity and gender equality. The former is embodied by the official reverence made by both governments for their Aboriginal Peoples and cultures and the friendly and inclusive policies for immigrants of different cultural backgrounds. At the same time, the latter is found in the high representation of women in parliament and other political offices. In more detail, it is evidenced in the high female participation rate in both public and private sectors and the remarkable female enrolment ratio at all levels of education that are characteristic of both countries.
This reciprocal and complementary partnership is mainly embodied in their two-way trade and investment and various people-to-people exchanges and collaborations. Many Taiwanese regard Australia as a reliable supplier of clean, green, high-quality food, wines, and other agricultural products, an excellent academic environment that provides world-class education, and above all, the most popular destination for working holidays. Thousands of young Taiwanese go to Australia each year to study or work, building life-long friendships and connections with Australians. Reciprocally, Taiwan supplies Australia with machine tools, consumer electronics, and information devices to meet its needs. In addition, the Taiwan-Australia partnership is shown in bilateral collaboration on the development of green energy and the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Common Challenge Looming Large
Attentive observers would soon note that the Taiwan-Australia partnership, flourishing and reciprocal as it is, rarely touches on political and strategic affairs. The underdevelopment of the political-strategic linkages between these two thriving Pacific democracies can be explained – at least partially – by the fact that Taiwan’s de jure statehood is yet to be widely recognised in the international system. Nevertheless, as the global pandemic, which began in 2020, has presaged a period of uncertainty in which the challenges and threats posed by China are looming large in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, the leaderships of both countries will soon become aware of the necessities and values of facilitating and deepening the political-strategic coordination and cooperation between Australia and Taiwan.
The post-Cold War engagement strategy hoping to tame and transform communist China by incorporating it into global capitalism proved counterproductive. Instead, it paved the way for the rise of the increasingly assertive “Chinese Dream,” which could be manifested, as Chinese President Xi Jinping portrays it, as “the great rise of the Chinese nation.”
Tragically, the claimed goal of the “great rise of the Chinese nation” immediately leads to the humanitarian crises experienced by small nations under Chinese rule. Take a look at Xinjiang: two million Uyghur Muslims are currently imprisoned in the so-called “re-education camps,” a modern-day equivalent of concentration camps, where they are subject to forced labour, around-the-clock brainwashing, and torture, or even death. Cries also come from Buddhists in Tibet. Over the past decade, more than 150 Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire to protest China’s repression of their beliefs and culture. Finally, cries emanate from house-church Christians. They have witnessed crosses torn down, Bibles burned, churches harassed, raided, or shut down, ministers arrested, and believers put in jail.
As history attests, though, a repressive dictatorship rarely constrains its suppression within its borders. Just ask Hong Kong, which was promised “one country, two systems,” but got nothing but lip service. Over the last two decades, the world has witnessed how Hong Kong’s democratic progress has been blocked. The basis of the rule of law and good governance in Hong Kong was undermined, Hongkongers’ freedom of speech eroded, and the credibility of Hong Kong as a global financial city was destroyed.
Authoritarian expansionism does not stop in Hong Kong. China is brandishing its fist like never before. Chinese ships and warplanes routinely patrol around the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan Strait, and the Spratly Islands. It has also deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles on military bases constructed on artificial islands. China’s intention is apparent. In Beijing’s strategic consideration, the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea—which currently serve as international waters where all countries of the world enjoy navigational freedom—should be converted into China’s inland seas where navigational freedom is allowed only for Chinese ships and others approved by Beijing. By claiming these three important waters as its inland seas, China can extend its military power to half of the Pacific. This is a strategic aim reiterated by President Xi Jinping: “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the US.”
Authoritarian expansionism does not appear simply in military form. China is manipulating so-called “debt diplomacy” to expand its influence through the two paths widely known as “One Belt, One Road.” By offering hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to governments from Asia to Africa to Europe, China is inducing these developing – and mostly non-democratic – countries to take on massive debt. This would allow Chinese state companies to build facilities such as seaports, airports, railways, highways, power plants, and so on that are questionable commercial value and not affordable.
The “China Factor” Sneaking in Australia
By militarising the South China Sea and implementing debt diplomacy, China has exerted coercive influence in and established a potentially hostile presence throughout Maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. These are two areas that together constitute Australia’s “sphere of primary strategic interest.”
What is more worrisome for Australia is that the challenges posed by China do not stop at the “buffer zone” for Australian home security but drive deep into domestic politics. As China has become Australia’s top export destination in recent years, Australia has slipped into a dangerous economic dependency with China. Since 2018, exporters of Australian wine, beef, barley, coal, and other agricultural products have repeatedly faced “punishments” from Beijing. These are either through outright import bans or by imposing unreasonably high tariffs. Such examples can be found in Canberra expressing concerns on the security of the Huawei 5G building project, enacting laws to check foreign interference in elections and domestic affairs, or even calling for an independent international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
Chinese sharp power does not appear only in the way of weaponising Australian trade dependency on China. China has reportedly meddled in Australian elections and political competition by launching cyberattacks on government offices, planting operatives in parliament, or cultivating lucrative financial relationships with politicians across party lines.
In addition to domestic politics, these sharp-power tactics have driven deep into society. Taking advantage of Australian universities’ fiscal reliance on the rapidly growing numbers of Chinese fee-paying students, Beijing can silence professors and students on many issues the Chinese Communist Party finds dangerous or offensive. For example, relating to the “three Ts” (Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan), we now may add another “T,” that is, East Turkestan/Xinjiang, to this list. No doubt, this sharp-power tactic of weaponising overseas Chinese students is putting academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia’s world-class higher education sector at risk. Moreover, the growing concerns over China’s influence operations allegedly carried out through Chinese students, Chinese-Australian organisations, and Australian politicians of Chinese descent have had a broader polarising effect on society and endangered the social cohesion of Australia.
A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed
Facing such a rapidly deteriorating political-strategic outlook, it might be a comfort for Australia to have a friend like Taiwan. As a consequence of being predestined to live in the shadow of a rising giant, Taiwan has suffered for at least a decade from the bitterness of the “Chinese Dream.” A dream that Australia has only begun to taste in the last few years. As a well-known Taiwanese epigram says, “prolonged illness makes the patient a good doctor.” This implies that the long-suffering yet still surviving Taiwan could be an inspiration to Australia. A country that only recently became aware of the threats posed by Chinese authoritarianism expansionism seeks to change the rule-based world order. Both counties will benefit significantly from extending the Taiwan-Australia partnership to the political-strategic field for three reasons.
First, from a strategic-military perspective, Taiwan is “China’s Crimea.” Indeed, as far as Beijing is concerned, Taiwan is the most convenient excuse and the best point of breakthrough to carry out its claimed global strategy of dividing up the Pacific Ocean and placing the western half (so to speak, including Maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific) under its control. Therefore, the merit of facilitating and deepening the political-strategic coordination and cooperation between Australia and Taiwan is twofold. To begin with, it could greatly complicate Beijing’s choice to wage war and, thereby, serve as a deterrence to Chinese aggression. Moreover, even if that deterrence fails, Australia will not cede the operational initiative to its adversary. Moreover, it will effectively defend its home security by keeping the envisioned conflict at bay. More precisely, Australia will prevent warfare from even taking place in its strategic buffer zone.
Second, Taiwan is a willing partner with Australia in providing South Pacific states with alternatives to coercion from Beijing through debt and dependency. Like Australia and New Zealand, Taiwan has been on a journey searching for a new national identity over the last three decades. Just as Australia integrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into a brand-new Australian symbolism and New Zealand upholds the Māori cultures to create a highly distinguishable national identity, Taiwan has also endeavoured to rediscover its Austronesian origins. Thus, it works to restore its oceanic nature of being an island by redefining itself as an extended Austronesian family member spreading out over the vast Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, it is beneficial to both countries when Taiwan is brought into the South Pacific as a partner of Australia.
On the one hand, Taiwan could share the financial burden of the “Pacific Step-up” policy, which Australia has invested in in the context of its worsening strategic environment. But, on the other hand, given its aspiration to enhance its visibility and play a meaningful role in the Indo-Pacific region, it will be helpful for Taiwan to have a much more experienced and trustable mentor – read Australia – who could guide Taiwan, a relative newcomer in Pacific affairs, to participate adequately in the improvement of well-being and the maintenance of security in that region. What is more, the Taiwan-Australia partnership in Pacific affairs can enjoy a political advantage: to rid Australia of ill-disposed scepticism and criticism that manipulates the discourses of “neo-colonialism.” After all, who can deny the legitimacy of the mutual help and cooperation between Austronesian nations – read Taiwan and Pacific Islands – or criticise the mutual empowerment among members of an extended Austronesian family spreading out over the vast Pacific as a kind of colonialism?
Third, as it has been receiving sharp Chinese power for a decade, Taiwan resembles “China’s Ukraine” in a political-strategic sense. Just as Russia had employed what was later known as “hybrid warfare” to undermine and divide the Ukrainian society before and during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, China has openly launched what two senior Chinese strategists have called “unrestricted warfare” (超限戰, literally, “warfare beyond bounds”) against Taiwan. Several years before Australia became aware of the threats of sharp Chinese power, Taiwan had suffered, to a much greater extent and in a much more comprehensive way, from China’s unrestricted warfare. This blended conventional warfare with various unconventional warfare, such as cyberattacks, disinformation, lawfare, electoral intervention, weaponising trade dependency, and buying off politicians and academics. Thanks to linguistic-cultural proximity, Taiwan is set to be the main ground where unrestricted Chinese warfare takes place. As it becomes a new battleground of that unconventional warfare, I believe Australia can draw on the experiences of its suffering yet surviving predecessor, Taiwan, if the bilateral political-strategic coordination and cooperation can be initiated. Reciprocally, Taiwan can benefit from the critical information shared by Australia in resistance to sharp Chinese power, even though the former is not a member of the Five Eyes.
Ek-hong Ljavakaw Sia is a research fellow of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at the University of Tübingen, Germany and will serve as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Sociology (IOS), Academia Sinica, Taiwan. His research interest includes global geopolitics, nationalism, and neo-imperialism.