(OT) Australia - "strategic ambiguity" re: Taiwan

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What if bluff and bluster turn to biff?

LAST year Rich Armitage, a former US assistant secretary of defence and one of the smartest, toughest members of the US national security community, told Australians politely but bluntly that if Washington found itself in conflict with China over Taiwan it would expect Australia's support. If it didn't get that support, that would mean the end of the US-Australia alliance.

Armitage's comments directly led to a huge strategic reassessment involving the foreign affairs and defence departments, Australia's intelligence and assessment agencies, the Prime Minister's department and other concerned agencies. It was one of those vast, subterranean exercises that the public normally hears nothing about, but that is acutely important. Now, Canberra has what it thinks is a full and co-ordinated strategy, complete with deep contingency planning, to deal with the Armitage scenario. Of course the reality is that in any conflict Australia would side with Washington.

But the object of Australian policy is to prevent such a choice ever having to be made and to handle, with what might be termed "strategic ambiguity", a series of contingencies short of conflict.

One set of those contingencies is developing now, in the lead-up to Taiwan's presidential election on March 18. Beijing has recently declared that if Taiwan delays talks on reunification indefinitely it would view that as sufficient cause to use force to reunify.

Beijing has also made clear its extreme displeasure at the prospect that Democratic Progressive Party candidate, Chen Shui-bian, might be elected president. In the past, the DPP and Chen have favoured formal independence for Taiwan. In this election, however, Chen has promised that he would not declare independence, or even hold a referendum on the question, unless China used force against Taiwan.

The Taiwanese election is shaping up as fascinating and genuinely unpredictable. Chen, a former mayor of Taipei, is a popular and powerful candidate. The ruling Kuomintang is running the incumbent vice-president, Lien Chan, a greyer figure but steady and with the immense benefits of the Kuomintang money and branch network across the island. Kuomintang-connected businesses yield something like $US400 million ($650 million) in income a year and the KMT is one of the great, mass-based parties of Asia, which has successfully overseen both the democratisation of Taiwan and its successful weathering of the Asian economic storm. In a tight race its huge machine could be decisive.

But the race is made more unpredictable by the third candidate, former high Kuomintang official James Soong, who has split with the party to run for president as an independent. Soong is a popular and dynamic person who has a particularly rancorous relationship with Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, who is retiring at this election.

To oversimplify things grossly, Chen is regarded as most instinctively pro-independence, Lien is regarded as most associated with the status quo (independence in everything but name) and Soong is regarded as most inclined to emphasise a common Chinese identity with the mainland.

China's threats are presumably designed to hurt Chen and help Soong, but they have forced all three candidates into virtually identical positions. Soong has made it clear that although he is happy to have talks with the mainland, he will not give up anything of importance to Taiwan, which means its de facto independence. Beijing's bellicosity forced Soong to respond that: "The Taiwan people are not afraid to negotiate but they will not agree to negotiate out of fear."

Similarly Chen has gone to great lengths to show he won't be provocative as president, but nor will he compromise on any core issues. Beijing's interventions in Taiwanese politics are often counter-productive. In 1996 it tried to hurt Lee's chances of re-election by denouncing him, among other things, as a "harlot of history", engaging in military exercises near the Taiwan border and firing missiles into Taiwanese waters.

What it got was a thumping electoral victory for Lee and the deployment of two awesomely powerful US carrier battle groups to support Taiwan. Whether Chen gets a similar defiant vote that puts him over the top is unclear. In a development that reflects well on the maturity of Taiwanese democracy, polls are indicating that Beijing's threats are having no effect on the election.

Similarly, the fact that Beijing is bellowing rather than firing missiles this time is also encouraging, in so far as it goes. Further, even Beijing's threats have entailed a hint of compromise. It has agreed that renewed talks with Taiwan could start with functional rather than political issues, that the talks be conducted between equals, and has not demanded that Taiwan publicly repudiate Lee's formulation that Taiwan-China relations should be on a "special state-to-state basis".

It's a dangerous assumption, but a reasonable hope that what we are hearing from Beijing is basically bluff and bluster.

Where Beijing may be seriously miscalculating, however, is the effect its bullying might have in the US. Congressional opinion against ratifying China's entry into the World Trade Organisation is hardening; congressional support for increased weapons sales to Taiwan is also hardening; European opinion against China is also growing. And each US presidential candidate has felt obliged to make significant comments critical of China.

Those contingency plans of Canberra better be pretty good.

Greg Sheridan is The Australian's foreign editor.


Article posted as general awareness issue in support of previous posts about this developing "strategic ambiguity" situation.

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), March 10, 2000


This article gives a clear perspective on the candidates views on reunication Pieter. I hope their accessments are correct. Peace has never been achived by weakness.

Thanks for all your effort.

-- Tommy Rogers (Been there@Just a Thought.com), March 10, 2000.

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