Needless anxiety over China will only make it true
*Originally Published on THE FORGE*
Australians need to rapidly reassess their China-Taiwan calculus, because as it stands we are overstating our global importance and understating realities. Overstating the possibility of conflict risks us creating a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein we make our fears come true.
A recent poll by the Australia Institute  brought surprising results which demonstrate a significant divergence between Australians and Taiwanese regarding the threat of China. Nearly 25% of Australians believed China will attack Taiwan soon, compared to just 5% of Taiwanese who believed an attack on them was imminent. Australians, compared to Taiwanese, were also twice as likely to think that China will attack Australia soon (9% vs 4%). Perhaps most shockingly, the poll showed that Australians were more likely to say the Australian people are prepared to go to war for Taiwanese independence than the Taiwanese themselves were, at 26% vs 17%. Australians, therefore, are more willing to fight for Taiwan than the Taiwanese are, while also believing the prospect of such an event happening is greater than those who have spent recent weeks watching missiles fly overhead
In the midst of visits from the US Speaker of the House  and Chinese military drills  ,cross-strait tensions are high — but this macabre outlook highlights a common fallacy: believing we are more important than we actually are. China’s aim to reunify Taiwan has been an unwavering priority since its inception. Our unfamiliarity with the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) makes it difficult to appreciate the seriousness with which Taiwan features in the Chinese narrative of ‘rejuvenation’. The CCP’s latest white paper  on the topic demonstrates the believed inevitability of a unified China, bluntly declaring: “The historic goal of reuniting our motherland must be realised and will be realised.” Yet, in the face of such forceful and longstanding rhetoric, only 1 in 20 Taiwanese believes an attack on them is imminent — so why do 1 in 10 Australians believe an attack is coming our way?
Perpetrating this false anxiety are two interrelated factors. Firstly, Australia’s perception of conflict is warped by a history largely devoid of existential threats and conflicts in our near region. Japanese attacks on Darwin during the Second World War should not be forgotten, but nor should this single experience of existential peril temper our strategic outlook 80 years later. Our recent experiences in warfare have been as junior partners in a coalition, fighting in largely permissive environments throughout the Middle East. Resultingly, Australians are extremely attuned to the ‘drums of war’ when they start playing — it’s a song we had nearly forgotten. Calls from our leaders to ‘prepare for war’  thus hit Australians hard as we are forced to conjure up visions of conflict that are not the far-flung, back-of-mind affairs we have been used to since the 1950s. Comparatively, the Taiwanese have been living under the cloud of potential conflict their whole lives. As a result they have a level of resilience and nuanced understanding that Australia, sheltered from the world by two oceans, simply does not possess.
Secondly, Australians overstate our value and importance to China. Undoubtably exercises such as Pitch Black , and the recent deployment of B-2 bombers, highlight Australia’s consequence — but only as a supporting actor, not as a target China would seriously consider. Underlying concern about a possible Chinese attack is the assumption we are worth attacking. However, the truth is that in a global conflict Australia is far too difficult and relatively too insignificant to be worth wasting precious war stocks on. In a conflict over Taiwan the proximity of countries such as Japan and South Korea are almost certain to be more pressing concerns for China than conflict with Australia. More plausible would be the destruction of key infrastructure in Northern Australia which, in accordance with US strategy,  would be a crucial stepping stone into an Asian conflict. Therefore, our recent spending spree on Defence infrastructure in the north  likely increases the attention China gives us, but only in relation to what it means for their conflict with the United States. Beyond this there are more pressing concerns than the land Down Under, namely the land across the strait.
To overstate our own likelihood of conflict runs the risk of initiating a classical security dilemma. As the public overreacts, which will invoke certain responses military or otherwise, we run the risk that China too misperceives our appetite for conflict. The result being that they too respond in kind with increasingly aggressive measures, and so the cycle goes. This self-fulfilling prophecy ultimately ends up acting as confirmation bias for the initial concern, which, while initially wrong, has been brought about through sincere, but misguided, anxiety.
Overwhelmingly, Australians are tuning into the world of global conflict despite a lack of familiarity with the topic. Having watched the Russia-Ukraine conflict evolve in real time there is understandably concern regarding global stability, especially relating to the evolving US-China situation. Despite this, we are doing ourselves a disservice by construing the threat of a China-Taiwan conflict as more probable than the Taiwanese do themselves. Additionally, that we are more willing to defend a country than its own citizens should be cause for reconsideration. To avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, Australians ought to realign their fears with the reality at hand: that the Taiwanese are the ones at serious risk of conflict and that, thus far, they are showing a level of cool headedness from which we could learn.