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Might Taiwan be the next Franz Ferdinand moment?

By Alan Dupont - posted Wednesday, 25 November 2020

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, triggered the most destructive war in human history. Just 25 years later, Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, a middling European power, ignited a second global conflagration.

In the dystopian world of the 2030s, ravaged by war and pestilence, the last remaining students of the once vibrant discipline of history ponder their lecturer's question. How could small, relatively insignificant Taiwan – denied even the trappings of statehood – have precipitated a cascading series of events that culminated in the outbreak of a third global conflict?

Improbable? Fanciful? Cold War thinking? Henry Kissinger disagrees. The 97-year-old doyen of hard-nosed realists and the architect of the 1972 US rapprochement with China recently warned that unless there is some basis for co-operative action between the two super powers "the world will slide into a catastrophe comparable to World War 1".


As Australia's intelligence community ponders the consequences of the worsening US-China rivalry, Taiwan is considered the most likely trigger for a hot war between them. Should it occur, Australia would be caught on the horns of a dilemma. Refusing to support Taiwan would anger Washington, calling into question our commitment to the ANZUS treaty and the whole alliance network that underpins our security. But sailing to the rescue of Taiwan would risk severing already strained ties with China.

The growing concern about Taiwan reflects three worrying trends. First, decades of intermittent attempts to bridge longstanding differences between Taiwan and China have failed. Xi Jinping seeks a legacy as the reunifier of the Middle Kingdom. This would elevate him above Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the pantheon of Communist Chinese leaders. But time is running out to achieve this dream. So Xi has ditched his Taiwan charm offensive in favour of coercion on a grand scale, putting Australia's problems with China in the shade. If Taiwan can't be persuaded to peacefully reunify with the mainland then Xi Jinping is prepared to use force.

Second, the Taiwanese increasingly reject reunification with China. They have drawn the obvious lessons from Xi's ruthless crackdown on Hong Kong's once vigorous democracy, which has exposed the hollowness and deceit of the "one country, two systems" formulation supposed to pave the way for peaceful reunification.

Third, Donald Trump has reversed decades of cautious US policy on Taiwan by ramping up arms sales to Taipei. Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have made it abundantly clear the US will not sit idly by if Taiwan is attacked.

Some worry another Taiwan crisis is imminent. The catalyst could be Trump overreach in the waning days of his presidency or Xi opportunistically taking advantage of the chaos in Washington to take Taiwan by force. Neither scenario can be dismissed. But the Taiwan issue is more likely to fester short of conflict pending Xi's assessment of president-elect Joe Biden's overarching China policy.

Although his administration will be more measured in tone, Biden is unlikely to reverse Trump's support for Taiwan given the strength of anti-China sentiment in congress. Expect the risk of a military clash to grow and with it the potential to escalate into a wider conflict. We need to prepare for such an outcome. As a democracy, the chief determinant of Australia's response will be public opinion, which will be shaped by perceptions of responsibility for the crisis. If China is seen as the instigator, public sentiment will be strongly supportive of Taiwan's own lively democracy.


Canberra's problem is that China will deploy every instrument of state power to prevent other countries siding with Taiwan. Reunification is a core issue for Beijing.

Xi knows that once committed to military action, failure to achieve this holy grail could unleash a virulent domestic backlash that could be terminal for his rule. Chinese threats will be amplified by domestic voices urging the government to stay out of the conflict to avoid reprisals that would further damage trade and send the relationship into a long-lasting deep freeze. There is also the real possibility of significant Australian casualties should we deploy ships and aircraft to the fight.

None of this should dissuade us from a robust defence of Taiwan should China decide to impose its will on a free people by force of arms or other coercive measures designed to bring about the island's economic or financial collapse. To do otherwise would be an indictment of our professed support for a rules-based international order and democratic norms, not least of which is the right of people to elect their preferred government.

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Article edited by Arabella Scott.
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This article was first published in The Australian

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About the Author

Alan Dupont is Professor of International Security at the University of New South Wales and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He was previously the foundation Michael Hintze Professor of International Security at the University of Sydney and CEO of the US Studies Centre.

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