The Status Quo

Over the past week there’s been a ton of press on Australia’s political balance between maintaining the ANZUS treaty and cozying up to China. At the center of the issue has been a gaffe made by Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer during a trip to China in which he suggested Australia might not be committed to getting dragged into another conflict with the United States should China attack Taiwan. Greg Sheridan writes an opinion on the situation here that I found interesting: The Australian: Taiwan gaffe puts delicate balance at risk [August 21, 2004]

Taiwanese are increasingly assertive about their identity as Taiwanese rather than just a subset of China, but they do not want war. Chen has no mandate to bring Chinese missiles raining down on Taiwanese heads.

Thus the anomaly of the status quo is the best result anyone can imagine for the time being.

This requires a rigid symmetry in dealing with both Beijing and Taiwan. If Taiwan disturbs the status quo by declaring independence, it cannot necessarily expect the US and its allies to come to its rescue. Washington has been strongly giving this message to Taiwan’s leaders in recent months and Canberra has reinforced the message.

But if Beijing disturbs the status quo by taking unprovoked military action against Taiwan it has to understand that the US will militarily protect Taiwan. In other words, both sides of the Taiwan Straits need to see that their interests lie in the status quo.

The danger in Downer’s remarks is that they may encourage Beijing to miscalculate, that even Washington’s closest ally would not support it in the event that China took military action against Taiwan and the US intervened. That makes war likelier.

This excerpt from Sheridan’s excellent article (you can read the rest of it here) does well to both outline the realpolitik of the situation in the Taiwan Strait and the severity of Downer’s gaffe.

I hate the realpolitik. It’s just pure unfiltered bullshit, and Taiwan deserves better treatment – both from China, and from democratic nations such as Australia and the United States. I am an idealist, not a pragmatist, and I will most likely always remain so. But even a pragmatist should be able to realize that China’s ludicrous political isolation Taiwan and it’s threats of war and bloodshed are intolerable acts in any case.