Australia all bark and no bite on Taiwan

Author: Larissa Stünkel, ISDP

As Australia gears up for national elections, tensions surrounding the nation’s foreign policy trajectory are becoming unmistakable — particularly when it comes to Taiwan and its place in China–Australia tensions.

In a November 2021 parliamentary speech, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong rebuked Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his solid backing of Taiwan. She accused Morrison of using Taipei as a pawn to shore up electoral support and ‘desperately playing politics on China whenever he’s in trouble’. Now that Australia and Taiwan are seemingly edging closer — and celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Australian Office in Taipei — questions about Canberra’s willingness to deepen ties with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration remain.

It took Defence Minister Peter Dutton a mere 24 hours to lash out against Wong, reprimanding her for not properly reflecting the seriousness of current geopolitical tensions between Canberra and Beijing. Wong had used her carefully crafted speech to also decry Dutton’s recent public commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. Her opposition Labor party has long maintained that it would reshuffle Australia’s foreign policy to emphasise international collaboration over antagonism.

Later that week, Dutton and Morrison both doubled down on standing by Taiwan, while also warning that Beijing’s provocations should not be underestimated. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed these developments with ‘sincere gratitude’, indicating that the self-governing island remains optimistic about Canberra’s support.

The upper echelon of Morrison’s administration shows little restraint in acknowledging the importance of Taiwan, particularly since the new AUKUS security pact was announced in September. But overall, it was the tight grip of a ‘China fear’ narrative among top-level security advisors and politicians that underpinned the subsequent rapid deterioration of China–Australia relations.

What began as a domestic political rise of China critics soon became a nationwide debate about an all-out Chinese influence campaign to undermine press freedom. Dutton’s latest outburst in which he accused Labor’s Anthony Albanese of being Beijing’s hand-picked prime ministerial candidate, spoke to an intensifying political division ahead of the elections. Such a growing sense of hostility and persistent fear-mongering that key figures in politics and think tanks continue to promulgate is considerably narrowing Australia’s political and public tolerance level for complex debates.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Taiwan has gained significant ground, especially with regards to intensifying cross-strait tensions. Outlets that have proven hawkish towards China, such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, are now hosting Taiwanese officials and promoting an even stronger relationship with the island.

So far, Canberra has resisted the urge to solidify stronger ties with Taipei. There remains significant ambiguity suggesting the Morrison government might not be overly committed to bolstering ties with Taiwan. Former prime minister Tony Abbott’s speech at the Yushan Forum in Taipei in October 2021 demonstrated this.

Both Abbott and Morrison insisted that this travel was undertaken in a private capacity and not as a covert envoy. Despite this, Abbott’s speech was littered with conspicuous references to Canberra’s security interests and was heavily criticised by the Chinese embassy in Canberra. Regardless of whether Abbott’s visit was official or not, the Morrison government’s ensuing response was awkwardly ambiguous.

Not long after the AUKUS deal was announced, another former Australian prime minister reached for the soapbox, albeit with an opposing agenda. Paul Keating raised eyebrows when he questioned the government’s seemingly equivocal attitude towards Taiwan’s defence, and strongly criticised the AUKUS deal. Keating observed that amicable relations with Beijing should be Canberra’s main focus and that Taiwan ‘is not a vital Australian interest’.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hit back at the assertions, noting that the reverberations of a cross-strait conflict would also affect Australia. Despite Morrison accusing Keating of not ‘seeing things clearly’ and Dutton labelling him a ‘grand appeaser’, Canberra’s overall response was again profoundly tepid.

The Morrison administration’s desire to engage with Taipei appears far more ad hoc and ill-conceived when looking beyond the official rhetoric. Maintaining only a hard security-centric focus is insufficient to elevate bilateral relations to a more profound engagement. Even though the prospect of Australian nuclear submarines patrolling the international waters surrounding Taiwan was seemingly well-received in Taipei, it will be decades until these capabilities will be available to the Australian navy.

Morrison has also been front and centre when it comes to erratic messaging on the Taiwan Strait. In May, he irritated his own government after referring to Australia’s stance on Taiwan as ‘One Country, Two Systems’, de facto embracing Beijing’s position. His remarks sparked a major backlash from Labor, with Wong admonishing Morrison for ‘substantially’ changing policy and ‘ending 50 years of bipartisanship’.

He once again doubled down on being equivocal when he rebuked Dutton’s statement on coming to Taiwan’s defence. In an interview, Dutton was asked to comment on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s claim that Washington and its allies ‘would take action’ if Beijing attacked Taiwan. Dutton responded that ‘it would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the United States’, prompting Morrison to clarify that he would weigh all options carefully before getting involved in a Taiwan Strait conflict.

Apart from sending mixed signals, the Morrison administration seems uninterested in overtly deepening ties with Taiwan unless they are directly linked to pushing back against Beijing. Upon a visit from Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis in mid-February, his Australian counterpart Marise Payne determinedly announced that Canberra will stay with Lithuania as it faces growing Chinese pressure over deepening ties with Taiwan. Just a few days prior, Payne had brushed off questions about changing the name of Taiwan’s de facto embassy. The government’s careless utterings undermine Canberra’s pledges to be a trustworthy partner. So far, the current Australian government has only been supportive of Taiwan when it aligned with Morrison’s desire to call out China’s provocations or when acknowledging the Tsai government’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Selective priorities risk relegating Taipei’s concerns to the sidelines and eroding Australia–Taiwan relations in the long run.

Larissa Stünkel is Junior Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden.

Australia all bark and no bite on Taiwan