Australia’s bid for peace amid rising Sino-US tensions
How fitting that it was on ANZAC Day I reflected on how Australians go to war. The national day commemorates all of Australia’s service men and women, and derives its name from the force of Australian and New Zealand soldiers that landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. It is interesting to remember that, as a subject of the British Empire, Australia and New Zealand were legally committed to war with Germany when Britain declared war on August 4, 1914.
Today, Australia is able to make the decision to go to war for itself. Under Australian law the country is only committed to war by the nation’s Executive – the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. This arrangement however has come under scrutiny, with critics arguing that the decision to go to war should be debated and made by the people’s representatives in Parliament. But just last month, a bipartisan Parliamentary Enquiry affirmed the status quo.
Deciding to go to war to defend Taiwan
Although the idea of Australia going to war may seem quite foreign to most, it is not so outlandish a concern. Australia may be at risk of war following the potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In this case it is presumed that the U.S. and its regional allies, including Australia, would act in Taiwan’s defence. As recently as September, U.S. President Joe Biden affirmed America’s commitment to Taiwan.
However, Australia does have the choice to abstain and avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of war with China. Our obligations under the ANZUS treaty only commit Australia to ‘consult’ with the U.S. if it is threatened, and it does not require us to join the U.S. to aid a third party. Defence minister Richard Marles declared in March that Australia has ‘absolutely not’ committed to supporting a U.S. led defence of Taiwan.
In reality, it is the U.S. and China who will decide Australia’s fate in this potential war. This is the consequence of our deep strategic partnership with the U.S. and its military presence in Australia. There are important U.S. installations in Darwin, Exmouth (W.A), and Pine Gap. Furthermore, an expanded American military presence is in the pipeline, and American and British nuclear submarines are scheduled to begin rotating through HMAS Stirling in 2027.
Should China invade Taiwan it may calculate that the U.S. will intervene and so conduct pre-emptive strikes against American positions in the region, with Australia in that line of fire. Pine Gap is an extremely attractive target given its significant role in America’s global surveillance and intelligence apparatus. Exmouth, home to Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt, is also attractive as a communications hub for vessels operating in the Western Pacific and Eastern Indian Oceans.
Alternatively, our American allies may de facto commit us to war. If the U.S. comes to Taiwan’s aid it will certainly use Australia as a significant base of operations. The U.S. can quickly increase its military presence in Australia by evacuating forces from vulnerable positions in the Western Pacific such as Guam, Okinawa, and the Philippines. Under these conditions it would be extremely difficult for Australia to not become engaged in the conflict.
Working for Peace
Though Australia may be caught up in the event of war, opportunities to support peace remain. Australia has the opportunity to pursue multiple policy tracks in tandem, primarily deterrence and engagement.
Australia supports U.S. led efforts to maintain the regional status-quo and engage multilateral security initiatives such as AUKUS and the QUAD. Australia also works with partners in Southeast Asia, who like us, are seeking to achieve a balance of security cooperation with the U.S. and economic engagement with China. Keeping America engaged regionally and deepening security ties with other states is a key way that Australia can act for continued peace.
An under-appreciated method of deterrence is supporting efforts to uphold international law as a norm and behaviour shaping force. In maritime Southeast Asia the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has particular importance. Australia has acted to support UNCLOS in the region by conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea and by speaking out against violations. Further, Australia’s support for Ukraine alongside a global coalition of like minded states demonstrates a shared resolve to punish states that wage war in violation of international law. These actions raise the diplomatic and economic costs of aggression and intimidation.
Australia and China have begun to improve relations following recent trade conflicts and political disagreements. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met his Chinese counterpart Xi Xingping in November, the first time in five years the two heads of government have met. Regular high level meetings have resumed and the relationship appears to have made a broad positive turn. Australia has an opportunity to underscore the benefits of cooperation and it represents a more independent form of Australian diplomacy, especially when compared to America’s deepening economic hostility to China.
AUKUS might very well limit our diplomatic and economic progress with China, as the Chinese may always see Australia as a ‘deputy sheriff’ of the U.S. Nonetheless, recent progress in the bilateral relationship presents an opportunity for Australia to pursue diplomacy for the cause of de-escalation. Let us hope that the timing of this reproachment is indicative of a desire on both sides to work toward a peaceful future.
Remy Szabo is a young professional working in International Affairs for an Australian NFP. He holds a Bachelor of International Relations and Bachelor of Commerce (International Business) from ANU, and a Graduate Diploma of Education from ACU. His research interests include Australian Foreign and Strategic Policy, and the role of ideology in world politics.