Jamie Spiteri holds a Bachelor of International Relations from La Trobe University and currently works on Security Policy. He is predominantly interested in Security and Strategic studies, War studies and Indo-Pacific regionalism.
Recent comments by Australian politicians have reminded Australians that the likelihood of military escalation with China over Taiwan are as realistic now as ever. Peter Dutton, Australia’s new Defence Minister, has used his new platform to saliently outline the ongoing strategic challenge posed by the rise of China as a global superpower. Dutton’s hawkish outlook is neither surprising nor without merit; as Australia’s new Defence Minister, it behoves Dutton to outline the strategic threats that Australia faces and why he is spending billions of Australian tax payer dollars. Furthermore, in related successive statements, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo warned of the growing likelihood of war in the Indo-Pacifc, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced extension plans for Australian military bases in the north of the country committing to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific. However, there are some very real concerns with planning for a conflict with China over Taiwan, most notably that it is unlikely to happen. Such a campaign would be insurmountably costly, unlikely to succeed conclusively and more importantly, China has in its possession other, far more effective methods of getting what it wants.
China as an adversary
Dutton’s comments, that war with China over Taiwan “cannot be discounted” are consistent with ongoing hawkish political commentary and with recent Defence doctrine, particularly the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. These documents are verified by Chinese actions which include publishing a 14-point dossier outlining all of the egregious actions Canberra has taken which harm the bilateral relationship. A backdrop to the current strained Australia-China relationship and an important point that Dutton also noted is that reunification of Taiwan into the mainland has been a consistent geopolitical goal of the PRC, and is not one that is likely to abate with China’s continued economic and political rise. In fact, China’s geopolitical activities within the last decade have mirrored the increasing confidence and assertiveness of the CCP: China has become increasingly aggressive and competent at claiming and militarising contested territory in the South China Sea, extending all the way south to the Natuna Sea claimed by Indonesia; China has openly flouted international law by dismissing the 2016 arbitration ruling by the United Nations which ruled overwhelmingly in favour of the Philippines in a maritime dispute also in the South China Sea; China has instituted a range of infrastructure initiatives through its global spanning Belt-and-Road Initiative, also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR) which many commentators and politicians alike have branded as a neo-colonial restructuring of the global order, spanning throughout the entire Indo-Pacific and into Australia’s immediate region in the South Pacific; and China has also successfully, through a series of draconian national security laws effectively quashed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement with a view to full annexation. These regional events have occurred simultaneously with increasingly restrictive domestic surveillance, and flagrant human rights abuses against both the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province (an area geopolitically pertinent to the aforementioned OBOR) and horrific instances of organ harvesting against Falun Gong practitioners to name but two contemporary examples. This outlines a very important pattern which needs to be discussed in relation to China’s intention vis-à-vis Taiwan, namely that the CCP has become very good at gaining control over converted geographic regions and suppressing political dissent without waging a conventional war.
Problems with an invasion of Taiwan
There are many drawbacks for China waging a conventional war in order to reunify Taiwan. First, wars in the conventional sense are immensely expensive and have very little chance of reaching a conclusive victory. Hugh White has written extensively on the likely stalemate that would occur should tensions between the United States and China escalate to the point of armed conflict. Presuming that the United States and allies (including Australia) engage in a hypothetical war to defend Taiwan, there is a strong possibility that both belligerent parties reach a point of exhaustion with no conclusive victory. This scenario leads to either the unlikely surrender of one party, or else a final escalation to nuclear engagement. In the meantime, the cost to both belligerent parties in financial and human life terms would be, most likely, catastrophic. Such a scenario is obviously predicated on the presumption that American (and allies including Australia) will support Taiwan in an armed engagement with China. While not a foregone conclusion by any means, it is one that needs to be considered and is somewhat implied by Dutton’s comments in the first place. Secondly, a conflict in which China invades Taiwan and is hypothetically victorious carries the genuine and ongoing risk of immense international backlash involving sanctions from states and multilateral organisations alike. This could result in lost international legitimacy for the CCP in addition to severe economic backlash which would likely compound economic hardships brought on by the arduous fighting and conflict itself. When one considers the relative banality of Hong Kong’s effective subjugation (in comparison to the carnage of an outright armed conflict) it appears strategically foolish for China to engage in such a risky military manoeuvre that has no guarantee of success and will likely be enormously expensive even if it is. This appears especially true considering that China has both the skill and practice to attempt such a hypothetical take-over by other means such as conducting a ‘new’ type of war.
A ‘New’ War: What will happen?
This ‘new’ type of war is a honed and refined People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine known as ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ (URW). It is unrestricted in the way that it focuses on militarizing targets and aspects of a society far broader than the conventional aspects of war. URW focuses not on soldiers, or tanks or fighter jets, but rather it focuses on using economics, information, culture, politics, legislature, cyber, infrastructure, environmental factors, and almost any other facet of a society to gain an advantage. In his recent book The Dragons and the Snakes, David Kilcullen summarised URW stating how, “it dramatically broadens the definition of war beyond battlefield dominance, suggesting that war no longer means using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will”. Here we can see examples of Hong Kong’s subjugation, the geopolitical extension in the South China Sea and the subjugation of the Uighurs in Xinjiang without the use of conventional military aspects. URW is not a completely unknown phenomenon in Australia as the 2020 Strategic Update spoke of it but used the preferred term ‘Grey Zone’ to discuss the same threat vectors. Semantics aside, URW is the most likely way that China will seek to reunify Taiwan and is an area that Australia must compete in moving forward. The URW Grey Zone approach certainly takes longer and requires disciplined patience, however patience has consistently been one of Beijing’s strong points. Additionally, abolishing term limits means that Xi Jinping certainly has time to wait to achieve his country’s greatest geopolitical ambition.
Overall, it appears that Peter Dutton’s comments were correct. Conflict with China over Taiwan cannot be discounted, but it is unlikely that a conflict will look like the one he is referring to. Attacking Taiwan’s politicians, cyber infrastructure, economy, information media and slowly but surely influencing their news, laws and allies just like they did in Hong Kong, and with countless other examples in the Indo-Pacific and in Australia’s own region through OBOR, will cost China less in the long and achieve a more conclusive result.