Nuclear submarines won’t deter China from conflict with Taiwan, but Australia has an alternative arsenal | Jonathan Perlman
FOr an emerging superpower vulnerable to violent outbursts and forced retaliation, China’s initial response to the recent announcement of a new trilateral security agreement between Australia, the United States and Britain seemed surprisingly tepid.
Hours after the trio unveiled their “eternal partnership”, better known as Okos, China has formally asked to be allowed to join the 11-member Asia-Pacific trade group, the Comprehensive and Advanced Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
This was a strange move on the part of China, whose request requires the approval of members of the group, including Australia. In recent years, China has responded to earlier perceived abuses from Canberra by imposing $20 billion in economic sanctions and freezing ministerial contacts.
Now, it was effectively seeking service from Canberra, even though Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had just announced plans to buy nuclear submarines and indicated he was preparing seriously for the possibility of US-China tensions spreading into the war.
But China’s request to join the trade agreement has been carefully timed. It allowed China to demonstrate its commitment to free global trade and compare its approach with that of the United States, which withdrew from the gathering.
Most importantly, the Chinese app is designed primarily to avoid a long-awaited offer by Taiwan to join. China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, regularly tries to prevent other countries from doing business with Taiwan on an official level.
Six days after China applied to join the CPTTP, Taiwan submitted its own application.
Taiwan’s chief trade negotiator Jun Deng told reporters, “If China joins first, the issue of Taiwan’s membership should be very risky. This is quite clear.”
This CPTTP controversy has attracted less attention than the Aukus announcement, but it highlights a crucial feature of the frightening escalation of tensions between China and the United States.
China, in its quest for “reunification” with Taiwan, is playing on two separate battlefields.
First, and most obviously, it is expanding its military at a frantic pace and using its air power and navy to intimidate Taiwan. Last week, for example, China set an almost daily record for its fighter jets’ interventions in the Taiwanese air defense zone.
And last Friday, on China’s National Day, it sent 38 planes towards Taiwan. On Saturday, she was 39; On Monday, it was 56 o’clock. The United States, a close supporter and supplier of arms to Taiwan, called the flights to China “provocative.”
But China is also operating on a separate front. It is trying to isolate Taiwan on the world stage and ensure the lowering of Taiwan’s standing in the international diplomatic and economic spheres. So, while Morrison was still talking to Australian media about the Aukus and submarines, China’s commerce minister wrote to the New Zealand government – which holds official CPTTP-related documents – to join the group.
The lesson for Australia is that as relations between the United States and China deteriorate, it needs to avoid choosing the wrong battlefield.
With the gap between the Chinese military and Australia widening, Australia’s capability – even with a fleet of nuclear submarines, supplied by its Aukus partners – is unlikely to determine the balance of military power in the Indo-Pacific.
Although Australia ranks 12th in the world in terms of military spending, Australia’s annual defense budget is now only 10% that of China.
Australia plans to have the first of eight nuclear submarines in the water by the late 2000s. China, which has the largest naval power in the world, currently has a fleet of about 62 submarines, including 12 nuclear-powered submarines.
By 2040, it is scheduled to have 26 nuclear submarines. The United States currently has 68 submarines. They are all nuclear powered. Australian submarines and other forces can be used for a variety of purposes, including defending the Australian mainland – but in the event of a terrifying standoff over Taiwan, it won’t be decisive.
However, on the other battlefield, Australia’s capabilities are more powerful. In the realm of international trade and diplomacy, Australia, which ranks among the world’s 13th largest economies and – historically – a committed supporter of powerful international institutions – has real influence.
Australia has worked to create and strengthen bodies such as the Apec, which includes China and Taiwan, and the G-20, which includes only China.
The CPTTP was created in large part because Australia, along with Japan, worked to bail it out after Donald Trump withdrew in 2017. And now China is seeking to join.
The Chinese embassy – best known for its 14-point list of complaints with Canberra – wrote to the Australian Parliament to make its case, saying China’s membership would “bring significant economic benefits”.
Australia responded with hesitation, insisting that China should not be allowed to join the CPTPP until it had met its international trade obligations and lifted its existing sanctions on Australian exports such as beef, wine and barley.
Australia will retain more influence as it considers whether Taiwan should be allowed in. China says Taiwan should not be allowed to join the rally or any other official organization.
Australia should carefully spread its influence in the international arena. It could try to encourage de-escalation of US-China tensions and discourage provocations.
Taiwan warns that war is looming. But Australia will not be able to do much to alter the course of the actual conflict.
Instead, it can join others to send a powerful message to China about the potential cost of trying to take Taiwan by force.
Australian submarines that have not yet been commissioned will not deter Beijing from military intervention, but they do have an alternative arsenal that currently appears more successful in attracting China’s attention.