Taiwan’s place in Australia’s Asian Century

Author: Joel Atkinson, Monash University

Taiwan is mentioned only 31 times in the recently released Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. This puts it slightly ahead of the Philippines, which is mentioned 28 times.

However, Taiwan is Australia’s 6th largest export market, while the Philippines is its 20th. And not once is Taiwan mentioned without reference to at least one other country.

There is a simple explanation for the mismatch between the White Paper and reality: China has successfully pressured successive Australian governments into eschewing public recognition of Taiwan. The effect of this is all-pervasive. For instance, the White Paper is more comfortable labelling China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore as ‘economies’ where they are discussed in conjunction with Taiwan rather than daring to label Taiwan a ‘country’.

Still, bizarre public dissembling aside, Australia is one of the firmest supporters of Taiwan’s continued de facto independence. Australia has never conceded that Taiwan is a Chinese province. Rather, the joint communiqué that established official Sino–Australian relations in 1972 ‘acknowledge[d] the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China’. This stance has not changed. In a joint statement during Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia in late 2009, the Australian government confirmed its continuing respect for ‘China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including in relation to Tibet and Xinjiang’.  Rather than similarly ‘respecting’ China’s claim to Taiwan through placing it in the same category as Chinese-controlled Xinjiang and Tibet, Australia made a point of reiterating its 1972 position. Further, Australia has never accepted that China has the right to resolve its claim to Taiwan through force. As such, China’s claim to Taiwan — which the Chinese government itself regularly declares is backed by the threat of force — makes Taiwan profoundly significant to Australia.

The Australia–Taiwan relationship is important in more mundane respects too. Despite the rhetoric, what the two countries have is effectively a state-to-state relationship, and they cooperate closely on the economic front. The relationship has come a long way since 1973, when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam tasked the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation with monitoring the activities of Taiwan’s unofficial representatives, or when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser asked Beijing for permission to discuss Taiwanese illegal fishing in Australian waters with Taipei. In fact, intergovernmental relations are now much stronger and friendlier than when Australia had official relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorial Chinese nationalist regime prior to 1972.

That is not to say the relationship has been without significant frustrations on both sides. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s August 2004 equivocation in Beijing over the implications of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty in the event of a US–China conflict over Taiwan led some to question Australia’s tacit defence commitment to Taiwan and the US alliance more generally. Hugh White went as far as to declare, ‘Now we are closer to Beijing than to Washington’. The Gillard government’s embrace of the US’s ‘pivot to Asia’ has now dispelled any such illusions in China and Australia.

A bigger problem for Taiwan has been the decline in Australian ministerial visits. Australia sent a government minister to Taiwan every year between 1992–97. Extraordinary pressure from China following the Howard government’s support for the US during the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait Crisis saw this dwindle to two ministerial visits over 10 years. Yet, Australia is willing to ignore opposition from China and send a minister to Taiwan when the economic stakes are high enough; this is clear from the visit of Minster for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson to Taiwan last year to lobby for a multibillion dollar natural-gas deal. Australia’s initial hostility towards a free trade agreement with Taiwan also appears to be mellowing.

The most acrimonious dimension of the Australia–Taiwan relationship has been the South Pacific, where Australia and Taiwan have pursued different and often incompatible goals. Australia has placed conditions on the considerable aid it provides to its Pacific Island neighbours to push them toward political stability and economic self-sufficiency. Taiwan has provided financial aid to these same polities in return for diplomatic recognition, effectively giving them a cushion against Australian pressure. Australia’s conflict of interest with China in the South Pacific is actually more fundamental, as it is now discovering through its failure to co-opt China into pushing Fiji toward democratic elections. But China’s power to help and hurt Australian interests has seen Australia direct its animosity and frustration largely toward Taiwan. The atmosphere between Australia and Taiwan in the South Pacific has improved in recent years with the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s tacit ‘diplomatic truce’ with China. For example, the respective governmental aid agencies of Australia and Taiwan, AusAID and the International Cooperation and Development Fund, now hold an annual dialogue.

In sum, Taiwan is a very significant country for Australia, and will become even more so as the Asian Century unfolds. Just don’t expect to hear that from the Australian government.

Joel Atkinson is a lecturer at Monash University, and author of Australia and Taiwan: Bilateral Relations, China, the United States, and the South Pacific, Leiden & Boston: Brill (2013).

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