Week of 8 to 14 November 2021

US military action

Minister for Defence Peter Dutton speaking to The Australian’s Troy Bramston:

“It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action. And, again, I think we should be very frank and honest about that, look at all of the facts and circumstances without pre-committing, and maybe there are circumstances where we wouldn’t take up that option, (but) I can’t conceive of those circumstances.”

Quick take:

Minister Dutton’s comments were framed by both the domestic and international press as being a statement of Australia’s intent to support US military action to defend Taiwan. Although the full transcript of the Minister’s interview isn’t available, the published excerpts leave open the possibility of at least some ambiguity as to whether the Minister’s point was about supporting US military action in general or specifically supporting such military action in the event of conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Subsequent reporting in The Australian added Taiwan in parentheses—“support the US in an action (in Taiwan)”—seemingly making it clear that the question revolves around Taiwan specifically.

On one level though, any such ambiguity is hair-splittingly moot. If Minister Dutton can’t conceive of circumstances in which Australia wouldn’t support US military action, then presumably that implies that Australia will support any such military action in the Taiwan Strait. On another level though, the distinction matters considering that a statement of support for US military action in general is (very broadly speaking) consistent with Australia’s involvement in a number of notable past instances of US military action. By contrast, an explicit statement of support for all conceivable forms of US military action to defend Taiwan would be a significant development considering infamously ambiguous past expressions of Australian intent in such scenarios.

Regardless of the extent to which this latest statement constitutes a shift in Australia’s declaratory policy, it is yet another datapoint suggesting a deepening alignment of US and Australian statecraft in the Indo-Pacific. Per the Minister’s comments, Australia is declaring its intent to support the United States militarily “if the US chose to take that action.” It seems plausible to infer from the Minister’s remarks that Australia will join the United States in all conceivable forms of military action that the US chooses to take in Taiwan. By signalling support for Washington’s decisions about possible war, these statements seem to position Australia in the role of a force multiplier for the United States in extreme conflict scenarios in the Taiwan Strait.

In addition to the (many) serious ethical, political, and military questions about whether Australia should support the United States in any specific action in Taiwan, there are at least three general risks for Canberra in declaring Australian support in advance:

  1. Statements of support for all conceivable forms of US military action in Taiwan will likely heighten expectations in Washington. Given US moves to station more of its military platforms in Australia and share highly sensitive military technology with Canberra, expectations are already presumably high. And these expectations are only likely to grow further considering that bipartisan legislation on strategic competition with China places Allies such as Australia at the centre of US statecraft. But it would also be natural for Washington to expect even more from Canberra considering the Minister’s recent comments.
  2. The future trajectory of US domestic politics remains a source of serious risk for Australia. President Joe Biden’s poll numbers continue to slump and the campaign war chest of former President Donald Trump continues to expand. President Trump still enjoys high approval ratings among Republicans and seems to be prepositioning to again seek the Republican nomination in 2024. Given the political chaos, violence, and uncertainty of the final months of the Trump presidency and the possibility of a second Trump term in just over three years, it would seem imprudent for Australia to declare in advance its commitment to follow the US lead on questions of war.
  3. Canberra will likely compound the perception in Beijing that Australian policy is simply a proxy for US goals and interests. Regardless of how unfair this characterisation might be, it is how Beijing often views Canberra. To be sure, refraining from making statements of support for all conceivable forms US military action will not on its own cause China to abandon its view of Australia. Yet equally, making such statements will presumably further entrench China’s image of Australian actions as an extension of US external policy.

Of course, it remains possible that Minister Dutton’s statements are part of the signalling and theatrics of deterrence. Flagging Australian support for US military action in Taiwan might simply be intended to chasten Beijing by indicating that the People’s Liberation Army will also face the Australian Defence Force in any military confrontation involving the United States. As Minister Dutton acknowledged in the interview, Australia does not possess the military capability to singlehandedly deter China. But such statements of Australian intent to support US military action in Taiwan can be expected to incrementally increase the deterrent effect against China.

Moreover, notwithstanding Minister Dutton’s comments, nothing binds Australia to support future US military action. Statements of intent today won’t predetermine Australia’s future behaviour, and the consultations and joint actions prescribed by the ANZUS Treaty permit much interpretative latitude. In other words, Canberra could easily make such statements of support for all conceivable forms of US military action in Taiwan as a deterrence stratagem with the intention of fully reviewing and scrutinising any eventual US request for assistance. But with Washington, Beijing, and other capitals having heard that it’s inconceivable that Australia won’t support the United States militarily, Canberra might eventually have its range of movement restricted. The United States, China, and other powers may chalk Australia up as a US lock, thereby creating a tangle of expectations that Canberra won’t be able to easily shake.

Taiwan and trade

Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan responding to a question on 11 November about whether Taiwan had raised its bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP):

“We haven’t had a discussion since they formally put in their proposal to accede, but I’ve had regular dialogue through this year with the Taiwanese.”

Quick take:

Minister Tehan is maintaining a consistent line on Taiwan’s CPTPP accession. He emphasised repeatedly on 11 November that any aspiring member would need to meet the CPTPP’s “gold standards” and its emphasis on “trade liberalisation.” The Minister seems at pains to emphasise that any CPTPP accession should be based on the relevant economic and trade considerations rather than political or geostrategic priorities.

But while the ideal CPTPP accession decision might not be driven by international politics, it equally seems nigh on impossible to entirely separate the economic from the geostrategic. The Minister’s “regular dialogue” with Taipei is driven by shared economic interests between Australia and Taiwan. Yet these ongoing engagements have geostrategic significance as well. For a Taiwanese government seeking avenues to respond to China’s efforts to diplomatically, politically, and economically isolate Taiwan, an Australian Minister’s discussions with Taipei are inevitably about more than shared trade interests, great though these may be.

The infusion of the geostrategic into Australia’s trade engagement with Taiwan is no bad thing though. In contrast to the high stakes of military deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, deepening trade ties with Taipei is a much lower-risk and immediate way of strengthening Taiwan’s international position and delivering an incremental deterrent effect against China. What is more, unlike hard deterrent initiatives in the military realm, building the Australia-Taiwan trade relationship is likely to have concrete upsides for Australian exporters.

And then there were more

The Joint Statement from the 4th Australia-Malaysia Annual Foreign Ministers’ Meeting released on 9 November:

“The Ministers … agreed to work to strengthen the rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization at its core, to provide a level playing field, address unfair and coercive economic practices while responding to the acceleration of protectionist measures.”

Quick take:

After the recent Australia-Vietnam Joint Statement on 3 November, this makes Malaysia the second South-East Asian country to raise concerns about economic coercion alongside Australia. This takes to 11 the number of countries raising these concerns in 12 joint statements, communiques, and readouts since late 2020. The Australia-Malaysia Joint Statement was followed on 12 November by a readout from the Australia-Aotearoa New Zealand Foreign Minister Consultations in which the two countries “affirmed their strong support for open, rules-based trade based on market principles.” Although economic coercion wasn’t singled out as it was in previous instances of Canberra’s coordinated messaging with Wellington, the readout emphasised the importance of states being able to “pursue their interests free from coercion.”

Here’s the updated working tally of states that have joined Australia and raised explicit concerns about economic coercion:

As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections are very much appreciated.