Why Australia-China War Talk is Rising Between the Two Nations

Australia's relationship with China appears to be locked in a downward spiral due to seemingly irreconcilable differences. Moreover, discussions about a hot war between the countries are also brewing, despite solemn calls to avoid potentially inflammatory language.

The prospect of a direct military confrontation between Australia and China remains slim, most observers agree. Growing tensions and occasional diplomatic spats notwithstanding, Beijing remains Australia's largest two-way trading partner—worth A$251 billion ($194 billion), according to the latest figures from the Australian government.

In terms of conventional strength, nuclear-capable China outnumbers most militaries in the world. Its most recent defense budget of 1.36 trillion yuan ($210 billion) is six times that of Australia's A$42.7 billion ($33 billion), as reported by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Yet Prime Minister Scott Morrison joins President Joe Biden and other world leaders in continuing to emphasize the importance of security in the Indo-Pacific region. The posture, signaled by his country's participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, has drawn criticism from Beijing.

The Australian government's differences with China are many. Canberra banned Huawei from its 5G networks in 2018 and last year called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Beijing retaliated by placing anti-dumping duties and other trade restrictions on a number of Australian products.

This week, China suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue—a diplomatic mechanism for trade talks—and accused Australia of "disrupt[ing] the normal exchanges and cooperation" between the two countries, following its decision to cancel two Belt and Road Initiative agreements signed with the state of Victoria.

Australia's efforts to hold China to account for abuses of freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have also been dismissed as attempts at foreign interference.

None of this suggests conflict outside the arenas of diplomacy and ideology, but recent comments by senior officials within Morrison's cabinet have raised eyebrows in both the English- and Chinese-speaking worlds.

On Anzac Day on April 25, Australia's day of remembrance, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton warned that war with China over Taiwan should not be discounted. In his own address, the country's home affairs secretary, Mike Pezzullo, said "free nations" in the Indo-Pacific were again hearing the "drums of war."

This week, Australian media outlets carried leaked details of a private briefing by Major-General Adam Findlay, who in 2020 said conflict with China was a "high likelihood."

The Anzac Day remarks drew criticism from Australia's opposition Labor party. China's foreign ministry accused Morrison's government of trying to "stir up confrontation and hype up war threats."

However, the language appeared to echo similar comments made to Congress in March by U.S. Navy admirals Philip Davidson and John Aquilino—now former and serving head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, respectively. Both officials warned that China was accelerating its ambition of seizing democratic Taiwan—perhaps even within the decade.

Seasoned policy analysts in Washington have described the view as misleading, as well as failing to fully take into account the Chinese government's means and motivations. When it comes to Australia, however, some commentary suggests its involvement in a conflict of any kind may still relate to Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory and has vowed to "reunify"—if necessary by force.

Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has made a number of appearances on Australian media, expounding on the military and economic coercion Taipei faces from its cross-strait neighbor. He has also spelled out, in no uncertain terms, the ultimate purpose of China's military build-up near Taiwan.

He told the Australian Financial Review that, in spite of warming relations between Taipei and Canberra, there was no expectation for Australia to provide assistance beyond much-needed moral support.

Australia's role in the Indo-Pacific's hottest flashpoint

On Thursday, Morrison accidentally endorsed China's "one country, two systems" formula when discussing support for Taiwan. Australia has its own "one China" policy, which acknowledges but does not recognize or affirm Beijing's position that Taiwan is a Chinese province.

The same carefully crafted language exists in the U.S. one China policy, which differs in significant ways from Beijing's one China principle. The ambiguity has allowed Australia (and the U.S.) to maintain an unofficial relationship with Taipei while having formal diplomatic ties with Beijing.

However, neither Australia nor the U.S. have policies that touch on defense obligations in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act allows the U.S. to sell defensive arms to the island, but the legislation does not specify an obligation to provide military assistance during a war.

Publicly, the U.S. has remained intentionally ambiguous over the question of whether it will come to Taiwan's defense. Proponents find many benefits to this position, among which is unpredictability.

For the U.S. to intervene in a Taiwan Strait contingency, most scholars agree it would have to conclude that a democratic or de facto independent Taiwan is essential to its national interests, including perhaps its credibility among other Asian allies.

Japan, the U.S. treaty ally most at threat in a future where Taiwan is occupied by Chinese forces, is likely to assist. As a member of the ANZUS security treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., Canberra could have the conditions to assist a U.S.-led defense of the island.

Crucially, however, researchers in the field see the threat of a conventional conflict between China and Taiwan as being far from imminent. The more pressing threat, they say, is China's "gray-zone warfare," which includes measures that are both economic and psychological, aimed at denting the population's confidence and coercing Taiwan into discussing its future on Beijing's terms.

Australian Troops Deployed to Fight COVID
Australian Defence Force troops disembark an Australian Air Force plane at Avalon Airport on September 11, 2020, in Avalon, Australia. Darrian Traynor/Getty Images