Dealing with a different China

| August 5, 2021

In recent years, China has fortified the South and East China Seas, taken away freedoms in Hong Kong, oppressed Uyghurs and other minorities, and extended Xi Jinping’s leadership term from a decade to life. All these moves signal a very different China.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he fears that China’s president is likely to carry out his promise to invade and take over Taiwan “sooner rather than later.” He worries that if this happens, the United States and its allies may not be as ready to take action to support the 25 million Taiwanese people as an earlier generation of leaders.

Abbott, now working in London for the British government, made the remarks at a gathering where he shared the platform with Sir John Scarlett, a prominent former head of Britain’s security services, on the subject of “China, friend or foe?”

His remarks came just one month after the G7 meeting in Cornwall, when US president Joe Biden said that the world’s democracies were in a contest with autocratic governments around the world “as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.” Biden, of course, was pledging American leadership. The challenge, we knew, was China.

Abbott argued the biggest issue of all is rarely canvassed because the implications are so serious: war with Taiwan. It has long been unthinkable because China was preoccupied with development, but it could now be on the cards. China’s rhetoric against Taiwan has become increasingly belligerent.

As a sombre but relaxed Tony Abbott told the meeting in the remote seaside town of Wells on the north Norfolk coast, there was a school of thought that such potential disasters are best not discussed because, in doing so, they are more likely to happen. He warned that “‘the crushing of Taiwan would be a disaster that would change the world for many years to come’.”

The former PM said that although China had not controlled Taiwan since 1895, Xi was determined to complete chairman Mao Zedong’s work by the 100th anniversary of the Communist state in October 2049, though he would want to avoid an all-out war with the US. But would the US, along with its ally Japan, come to the rescue of 25 million people in Taiwan, a country it does not recognise as being separate from China?

Abbott asked: “Could Taiwan count on the support of both allies to shoulder the burden of holding off the attacks? Should they? Could they? Would they? That is the question.”

He argued that “There is little doubt that the United States could still defeat an invasion of Taiwan if it wanted to. But that might involve attacking installations on the mainland and putting US ships in great peril. There would be many, many thousands of casualties on each side with the risk of escalation well beyond the immediate theatre.

“On the other hand, should the Taiwanese fight, and they almost certainly would, an American acquiescence in a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would brand the US as an unreliable ally and a fair weather friend. The US alliance system globally would unravel, forcing all the other countries in our region to come to the best possible accommodation with Beijing or to arm themselves to the teeth.”

Some geopolitical analysts, including many in the US, do not believe China would risk an attack on Taiwan. The prominent Dr George Friedman, who runs Geopolitical Futures, has argued that surprise is an essential ingredient in an amphibious invasion, and that would be impossible in a sea crossing of 160 kilometres, or a steaming time of five to six hours. The Chinese would be attacked by US warplanes and submarines, causing huge damage to their fleet.

However, Abbott had no doubt how an attack on Taiwan would start. He said it had been well documented in Chinese state media. “It could be an economic blockade, large-scale cyber-attacks, targeted assassinations, and quisling uprisings, followed by massive bombardment of Taiwan’s fortifications. The final move would have to be a sea or airborne invasion. They haven’t because having the People’s Liberation Army in control would be the only acceptable outcome for Beijing.”

In answer to a question from Sir John about the Biden administration and beyond, Abbott picked his words carefully. “The Biden administration is a more orthodox administration than Trump’s, but both are powerfully influenced by that sense of imperial overstretch. Part of Trump’s appeal to middle America was ‘I will end the endless wars.’The so-called endless wars are being waged for a reason. If the one country that you could usually rely upon to keep the place a little bit fairer, more just, is pulling back I think that’s very concerning.”

Abbott said he thinks there’s no doubt that in the last couple of decades, if China had had a go at Taiwan, the US would have intervened. But the cost of doing so is getting higher and higher. Whereas the American establishment had a commitment to the Europeans during the Cold War, it is a very different world today.

Abbott’s other strong message was the need for a decoupling of the supply chain between the democracies and China, noting a significant number of parts in US military aircraft are sourced from the Communist state. “It is not selling stuff to China that is the problem; the problem is China becoming an essential part of your supply chain.”

Abbott has been in Britain for some time as an adviser to Liz Truss, international trade secretary. He has advised against seeking a free trade deal with China. By coincidence, the Financial Times reported on 26 July that the UK government was seeking to remove China’s state-owned nuclear energy company CGN from all UK power projects, including its 20 percent stake in the new A$38 billion nuclear plant being built in Sizewell, Suffolk, a project led by Electricité de France. Another new nuclear plant in nearby Essex, close to London and based on Chinese technology, is also in question.

From Paris, President Emmanuel Macron is due to announce a new “‘pivot to Asia” policy affecting the Pacific territories in coming days. In a brief reference to Australia’s position on China and Taiwan, Abbott said he could not think of any harder decision that might have to be taken by an Australian prime minister – it would be very, very, very hard.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.

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