Normally, if the response to a speech of mine was that it had been a ‘despicable and insane performance’ from a ‘failed and pitiful politician’, I’d question what went wrong. But since the comments came from Chinese communists about an address I’d made in Taiwan, it’s hard not to feel some pride. Two years ago, I’d been asked to speak at the Yushan Forum, the Taiwanese government’s annual showcase for their international links. Then, I was worried about the optics of calling out Beijing’s behaviour from Taipei so I pleaded diary difficulties. I didn’t want to be accused of complicating Australia’s relations with our prickly largest customer. But this year, after China’s suffocation of Hong Kong, belligerence towards all its neighbours and especially its weaponisation of trade against my own country, it was almost my duty to give the Red Emperor’s next target some moral support. Besides, a good use of ex-prime ministers is for saying what needs to be said without the diplomatic equivocation required of national leaders.
Of course, Covid makes everything harder than it should be. My first observations during a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen about the importance of solidarity with Taiwan had to be mumbled through a mask. The main speech involved a Perspex shield between the speaker and the socially distanced audience. Taiwan, which was officially ignored by the World Health Organisation during the pandemic, has so far handled Covid better than just about anywhere else. There have been fewer than 1,000 deaths and no strict lockdowns. It’s a record the government is keen to maintain at least until vaccination rates get to high levels. And being in a Covid bubble for four days with nearly all meetings in the one hotel, in specially designated rooms, was a small price to pay for the chance to salute a people who are now under existential threat.
While the world has been preoccupied with Brexit, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Covid and climate change, China has engaged in the biggest military build-up in history. It already has the world’s largest navy in numerical terms, as well as the world’s largest heavily armed coastguard, plus a vast ‘maritime militia’ (including the 200 ships that recently swarmed a reef claimed by the Philippines). Just before I arrived in Taipei, Beijing flew 150 military aircraft on one day into Taiwan’s air defence zone. There are also frequent naval exercises off Taiwan’s coast, social media campaigns designed to demoralise the Taiwanese people and cyber-attacks. The campaign to take Taiwan has already begun.
As long as the US Pacific Fleet had unquestionable dominance of the seas, Taiwan was safe. Now, though, US ships would be acutely vulnerable to China’s carrier-busting missiles, and China is creating a massive amphibious assault capability to storm the island if necessary, drive US forces out of the Western Pacific and realise its oft-stated aim of becoming the world’s dominant power by 2049. For the Taiwanese, the challenge is to move military strategy away from fanciful Kuomintang-era campaigns to ‘retake the mainland’, and towards obstructing a sea and airborne invasion. This means less emphasis on ships, planes and tanks; and more on highly mobile ‘stinger’ missiles, smart mines, attack speedboats and lots of shooters to make any invader pay a colossal price. For America, the challenge is to keep its technological lead in offensive and defensive missiles and to work out how to help Taiwan should fighting start. For both, the ultimate question is: what price freedom?
Would the Taiwanese risk their lives for their country? And what risks should America now run to preserve the freedom of ‘little China’ against ‘big China’? How many people today would be ready to declare, like Churchill to his ministers in 1940, that ‘if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood’? A poll last year showed that 77 per cent of Taiwanese people were willing to fight an invasion. Even so, compulsory military service has been reduced to just four months and the defence budget is still just over 2 per cent of GDP, so Taiwan’s hardly an ‘eastern Israel’. The point I tried to make to all the Taiwanese leaders I met is that if there is a post-Afghanistan Biden doctrine, it’s ‘America helps those who help themselves’.
If America were to fight for Taiwan, allies such as Australia couldn’t stand aloof. Japan has also just declared that responding to an attack on Taiwan would be ‘self-defence’. And the Far Eastern deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth taskforce is a sign that Britain, too, is aware how much is at stake. The best way to ensure that the unthinkable remains unlikely and that the possible doesn’t become the probable is to let China know that any assault on Taiwan would have incalculable consequences. Taiwan is now freedom’s front line. Korea and Japan will be next if the US alliance system were to collapse in disavowal or defeat.