STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS OF AUKUS FOR TAIWAN’S NATIONAL SECURITY
By William Chih-Tung Chung
Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced the establishment of a newly enhanced Australia-UK-US trilateral security partnership (AUKUS) on September 15, 2021. The leaders of the three countries, in a virtual meeting, stated in the joint statement that “guided by our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order, we resolve to deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.” A key component of the new security partnership is to increase cooperation on defense-related capabilities, which are highlighted by its first initiative to support Australia in the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) , at least to build 8 ones, based on “common tradition as maritime democracy”.
Although no reference to China in the joint statement, it is well-acknowledged that a security subtext of the AUKUS agreement is to counter China. Beijing condemned AUKUS as “extremely irresponsible” that “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”. However, Taipei welcomed the new trilateral security pact that will improve peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. To explore strategic implications of AUKUS for Taiwan’s national security, this article seeks to identify new factors affecting Taiwan’s strategic environment, to analyze the Biden administration’s diplomatic ways of military deterrence by enhanced military cooperation, and then examine to what extent AUKUS is relevant to Taiwan’s security strategy.
AFFECTING TAIWAN’S STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENT
The AUKUS establishment is a new ingredient of a US-centred security network but also a fresh deal to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. Both changes have imposed new variabilities to the regional strategic context, affecting Taiwan national security accordingly. AUKUS is an enhancement of the three states’ defense arrangements, longstanding and ongoing for decades, although there is no military commitment involved in AUKUS. Nevertheless, it is unlikely any of them, if under attack, will just sit by while there are defense treaties between each other. AUKUS ensures a more coordinated posture to synchronize and consolidate among the three states’ bilateral defense ties. The enhanced security pact also shows both Australia and UK are aligning themselves with the US, and signals both countries’ commitment to play a more active role in the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, AUKUS, along with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the Fives Eyes (FVEY), has been a new component of American constructed security network in the region that will complicate Beijing’s military expansionism if Washington decides to intervene in the end.
The phenomenon of China’s rise has become one of the most important factors defining security order in the Indo-Pacific. In the pursuit of Chinese national rejuvenation, Beijing’s increasing confidence and assertion of territorial claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea by military coercion has generated an acute threat to the regional peace and stability. Australian security expert Guy Boekenstein describes AUKUS as “a big deal” to show that all three nations, publicly with combined stance, are drawing a line in the sand to start and counter China’s aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific. Other than American commitment to the region, Britain shows more involvement in the Indo-Pacific after Brexit and Australia is increasingly concerned about China’s influence after deteriorated relations with Beijing. The Integrated Review, the UK’s blueprint of “Global Britain” published in March 2021, makes it clear that Britain plans to have the "broadest and most integrated presence" of any European nation in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia Prime Minister Morrison justified the striking deal of nuclear-powered submarines as “accelerating changes to regional security make conventional submarines unsuited to our operational needs in the decades ahead”. Although the AUKUS statement and remarks of the three leaders did not mention China, Beijing seriously criticized AUKUS as a “closed and exclusive clique” with “the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception”. Chinese hostility toward AUKUS reflects this new security pact that presents a further step toward a shift of balance of power to check China in the region.
MILITARY DETERRENCE WITH A DIPLOMATIC MEANS
The AUKUS establishment, a US-centred with military-technology-initiated trilateral security partnership, is a diplomatic arrangement to deter competitors by enhanced military ties under President Biden doctrine “diplomacy first”. Following the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan, Biden made it clear that Washington intently prevents the aggressive use of military force and instead concentrates on building and strengthening alliance to maintain America’s global status against threats. This reflects Biden’s call of “America is back, diplomacy is back.” The creation of AUKUS, therefore, can be regarded as a diplomatic preemptive arrangement to update the three countries shared ability to in a cooperative and collective ways to prevent conflicts and ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term.
In the AUKUS joint statement, "diplomacy, security and defense" are listed as three major domains where they will strengthen cooperation. Based on the existing and trustworthy relationships, the new ways to amplify the alliance, as AUKUS emphasized, are to deepen the cooperation of the three sides in security and defense-related capabilities with further information and technology sharing. The collaborative partnership will focus on “deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.” The Australia's nuclear-powered submarine project initiates the three parties to enhance the newly coordinated relationships. The goal of this enhanced partnership is to increase “interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit”. These initial efforts will concentrate on four areas: “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities”. The initiative of referred defense-related cooperation shows AUKUS’s intention to counter the security challenges by establishing collective military preparedness.
The AUKUS security pact could be understood as a deterrence mechanism, with enhanced diplomacy, security, and defense ties, to prevent war by posturing more ready and credible military strengths. It is an idea of win without fight. The deterrence mechanism aims to compel competitors with sufficient cost to ensure they will advance their aims through internationally recognized rules, instead military force. While alliances and partnerships are at the heart of this competitive effort, AUKUS articulates its vision to compete and deter in this environment. Achieving this vision requires a credible military capability, as the cornerstones of this mechanism, with a more robust cooperation of like-minded allies to ensure favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS vows to work together, along with other important allies and partners, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. This reflects Washington’s intention to apply alliance-diplomacy in forging the deterrence mechanism as President Biden formerly said, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again”.
MAKING TAIWAN RELEVANT TO AUKUS - COUNTER CHINA’S EXPANSIONISM
Taiwan is a frontline state in resisting China’s expansionism while Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory under the so-called “One-China principle”. AUKUS did not explicitly express its aim to counter China expansionism, and even deliberately emphasized that the security pact was not against any single state. Nevertheless, as the three leaders of AUKUS referred repeatedly that regional security concerns have “grown significantly”, it is believed that AUKUS is a move to check and balance China’s increasing influence, especially in security and defense terms. In fact, President Biden defines China as “our most serious competitor”, while he intends to apply a diplomatic means of reinforcing alliances to maintain America’s global leader status. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (NSSG) issued by the Biden Administration, on the one hand, criticizes China for seeking unfair advantages, adopting aggressive and coercive actions, and undermining the core rules and values of the open and stable international system. On the other hand, NSSG makes it clear that Washington supports Taiwan as a major democracy and a key economic and security partner because this is in line with the United States' long-term commitment. The 2021 G7 Summit Communique, for the first time, raised the Taiwan issue that "we underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues." Obviously, Beijing’s ambition to annex Taiwan has ratified China’s expansionism as the major threat to the region security.
In the context of against China’s military expansionism, AUKUS’s “commitment to the international rules-based order” is an opportunity for Taiwan to make itself relevant to the new security pact. Taiwan’s Foreign ministry spokesperson said Taiwan has “taken note” of the AUKUS pact’s commitment to maintain the regional order and has shared common interests and values with the three countries. One day after AUKUS announcement, the Joint Statement on Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations stated mutual intent to “strengthen ties with Taiwan”, which was described as a “leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries”. Taiwan indeed has very reason to appreciate a strengthened cooperation between AUKUS members, as the security partnership to deliver an Australian nuclear-submarine program could provide “invaluable deterrence against China”. Accordingly, the cross-Strait issue has been further internationalized in a much larger scale by the enhanced American-centred security network.
MAKING TAIWAN RELEVANT TO AUKUS - MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO ACROSS TAIWAN STRAIT
Taipei’s strategy of maintaining the cross-Strait status quo makes Taiwan’s position relevant to AUKUS’s aim to “sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region”. To demonstrate its opposition against Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s consistent declination of the “One-China principle” and US-Japan leading multilateral military exercise around southwestern of Okinawa, Chinese military aircraft have broken consecutive records, with 150 dispatched warplanes from October 1 to 5, 2021, entering Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The United States condemned China’s actions as “provocative” while Australia urged China against the use of force. In response to the Chinese military intimidation, President Tsai said she hopes for an easing of tensions across the Strait but vowed no one will force Taipei to take the path laid out by Beijing. President Tsai emphasized Taiwan would not “act rashly” but “there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure”. Then she proposed “four commitments” as “the bottom line and common denominator” of the people in Taiwan to engage China: “a free and democratic constitutional system, the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China should not be subordinate to each other, to resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty, and the future of the Republic of China (Taiwan) must be decided in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people”.
President Tsai’s new “four commitments” not only constructs narratives of Taipei’s principles to engage China, but also makes ways to strengthen ties AUKUS’s commitment with like-minded partners to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. In her article entitled "Taiwan and the Fight for Democracy - A Force for Good in the Changing International Order" of Foreign Affairs, President Tsai warns Taiwan falling to China would trigger “catastrophic” consequences for peace in Asia as “it would signal that in today's global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy." In the speech of 2021 Taiwan national day, President Tsai reiterated “Taiwan is willing to do its part to contribute to the peaceful development of the region,” as well as called for “maintaining the status quo, and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered”.
In fact, since President Tsai took office in 2016, Taipei’s cross-Strait policy of "maintaining the status quo" has been consistent and becomes her doctrine of Taiwan’s national security strategy. As international society has grown concerns on the crucial role of the Taiwan Strait, President Tsai believes, “from a global strategic standpoint, Taiwan is more important than ever. Stabilizing relations across the Taiwan Strait is no longer just an issue for the two sides. It is a concern for the whole Indo-Pacific region and has already become a focus of international attention.” While President Biden reiterated America’s commitment to defend Taiwan if China attacks, AUKUS, with its enhanced military ties in particular the joint nuclear submarine program, will increase Beijing’s difficulties of military invasion against Taipei in case of Washington’s intervention.
AUKUS is an enhanced construction of American security network in the Indo-Pacific. The establishment of AUKUS has cast new and important variables on the regional security. From Taiwan’s perspective, under the threat of China’s invasion, Taipei is keen to see the new security pact to balance China, especially with its enhanced military coordinative posture and capabilities. Although initiated by Australia’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines, AUKUS reflects President Biden’s global strategy to “bring diplomacy back” by a means of utilizing and enhancing its relationships with allies to construct an America-centred multilateral security network for upholding stability and order in the Indo-Pacific. Amid Beijing’s intimidation and coercion, President Tsai Ing-wen’s strategy of “maintain the status quo” with patience and resilience has significantly internationalized the cross-Strait issues and made Taiwan relevant to AUKUS. Moreover, regarding the maintenance of regional security as “a significant part of Taiwan's overall government policy”, Taipei has played a low-profile strategy of not “turn adventurist” even when it accumulates support from the international community. This further demonstrates Beijing’s expansionism as a troublemaker in the region that AUKUS intends to deal with. Accordingly, Taiwan seems to be a beneficiary of the new trilateral security pact. Taiwan may not be a game changer in the Sino-American great power competition, but Taiwan does have an indispensable role of American security network to play for countering China’s expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region.
William Chih-Tung Chung is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of National Defense and Security Research. He is also an Assistant Professor at the National Defence University, Taiwan and an Associated Senior Research Fellow at ISDP, Sweden. He holds a Ph.D. from the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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