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Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit infuriated China. How could tensions impact Australia?

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Taiwan’s representatives in Australia say there is no excuse for China ratcheting up tensions in the region following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, and that they welcomed Australia’s long-term support.
China has fired ballistic missiles and deployed fighter jets, warships and drones as part of its after the self-ruled island hosted a visit from Ms Pelosi – the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
The military exercises already appear to have impacted Japan after five missiles reportedly landed in its exclusive economic zone, and there are fears Western allies such as Australia, the United States and Japan could be drawn into any potential conflict by reacting to Beijing’s actions.

The exercises were condemned in a joint statement issued by the foreign ministers of Australia and Japan, and the secretary of state of the United States on Friday, but Beijing said its response was “justified”.

China announced six exclusion zones around Taiwan for military drills after the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Source: SBS News

What was Taiwan’s response to the visit by Nancy Pelosi?

SBS News asked the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Australia, the highest representative office of Taiwan in the country, whether it saw Ms Pelosi’s visit as a positive one.
“It is a common practice for Taiwan to receive parliamentary members around the world,” Taiwan’s representative Elliott YL Charng said in a statement, adding more than a dozen US parliamentary members had visited this year.
“Moreover, there was a precedent for US House Speaker to visit Taiwan, thus a US House Speaker’s visit should not become an excuse for escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait and the region.

“Taiwan appreciates Australia’s long-term support, and will continue working with like-minded democracies to maintain regional peace and stability.”

Soldiers perform flag-lowering ceremony at the Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan, 20 December 2018.

Soldiers perform flag-lowering ceremony at the Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan, 20 December 2018. Source: AAP

‘Reckless’ move or ‘tension worth having’?

Ahead of Ms Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas L Friedman described her potential move as an “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible” thing.
He argued it could result in the US being drawn into indirect conflicts with Russia and China at the same time.

Some China-Taiwan experts have supported the trip, including Michael Shoebridge, director of defence, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), an organisation that receives funding from Australia’s defence department, foreign governments including the US and military contractors.

Mr Shoebridge said a worse thing would be to isolate Taiwan politically, as this would make it more likely Beijing would use military force against the Taiwanese.

“So this tension is worth having as a way of deterring that conflict by letting Beijing know that Taiwan is not alone,” he told SBS News.
But Lowy Institute foreign policy program director Natasha Kassam said it was ultimately up to the Taiwanese people to determine whether Ms Pelosi’s visit was worth it.
“I don’t know that will become clear in the short-term,” she said.

“If the tensions continue and China continues to escalate, then the benefits of her visit may start to diminish in comparison to the risks and consequences that Taiwan faces.”

A Chinese military vessel sails off Pingtan island, one of mainland China's closest points from Taiwan, in Fujian province on August 5, 2022.

A Chinese military vessel sails off Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest points from Taiwan, on August 5, 2022. Source: AFP / Hector Retamal via Getty Images

Opposition leader Peter Dutton on Monday answered “yes” when asked by reporters whether Ms Pelosi should have gone to Taiwan, in a response where he referred to Taiwan as an “independent country” which is contrary to Australia’s policy of only recognising People’s Republic of China as the sole government.

“I’m pleased that she did because the reaction from China is completely over the top and it’s disproportionate,” he said.
Comments from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have been more restrained.
“I make no comment about the US Speaker’s decision to visit there. That really is a matter for them,” he told ABC radio on 5 August.

US President Joe Biden has previously said of the trip that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now”, but the White House has made it clear that “the speaker has the right to visit Taiwan” and it could not control her movements.

If the tensions continue and China continues to escalate, then the benefits of her visit may start to diminish in comparison to the risks and consequences that Taiwan faces

Lowy Institute foreign policy program director Natasha Kassam

Why did Nancy Pelosi visit Taiwan?

Ms Pelosi has been a long-time supporter of Taiwan and a critic of China, even unfurling a small memorial banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1991 after the Chinese Communist Party’s bloody crackdown on student protesters two years earlier.
Some speculate Ms Pelosi may have seen the Taiwan visit as a way to cap off a long political career ahead of the US midterm elections in November, which could see her lose her position.

In visiting Taiwan, Ms Pelosi said her visit demonstrated the US’s “unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy”.

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Why is China so angry?

China’s Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, but it regards the island as part of its territory and has vowed to one day take it, by force if necessary.
The party’s political rivals led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island and formed an alternative government in 1949.
Taiwan had good relations with the US for many years and became an American ally in 1950 but this changed in 1979 when the US cut formal ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with Beijing instead.

It came after the United Nations voted to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the “only legitimate representative of China” in 1971.

People wave flags in front of a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

The People’s Republic of China was recognised as the legitimate government of China starting in the 1970s. Source: AAP

In the 1970s and 80s, the US and China agreed on three joint communiqués, which helped establish the principles of the Washington’s own “One China” policy. This recognised the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China and acknowledges (not recognises) Beijing’s view that Taiwan is a part of China.

The US “One China” policy is also separate from China’s own “One China principle” that rejects Taiwan’s existence as a separate country.

Neither the US or Australia, which also follows a version of the “One China” policy, recognise Taiwan as a country and both have said their support of the “One China” policy has not changed. Both nations still maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan.

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How tensions could impact Australia

Charles Sturt University Professor Clive Hamilton said he thought military action by China against Taiwan was a serious possibility and Australia needed to prepare for it.
“Beijing is unpredictable,” he said. “We know that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping is determined to take control of, to invade and annex Taiwan.
“Australia must be prepared for that possibility while doing what we can to limit the possibility of it happening.”

The potential for Australia to be drawn into conflict within the next decade has been recognised by the government.

Beijing is unpredictable … we know that Xi Jinping is determined to take control of, to invade and annex Taiwan

Professor Clive Hamilton

During a press conference on 3 August, Defence Minister Richard Marles announced a to prepare the military in the face of growing threats. He noted Australia’s current strategy was based on the idea that if any other nation meant to harm the country, there would be a 10-year warning given.
“In 2020, the Defence Strategic Update observed for the first time we’re within that 10-year window,” Mr Marles said.

“It was a very significant observation. An observation which this government agrees.”

Australia's Defence Minister Richard Marles stands in front of the Australian flag, the Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has noted Australia is now in a 10-year-window for potential conflict. Source: AAP / James Ross

Ms Kassam said if the situation was to worsen and there was a fourth Taiwan Straits crisis, this would be dangerous for Australia.

“As it stands there are certainly risks for Australians in Taiwan and there are risks that as China flexes its muscles, it also looks to intimidate and harass other countries that persist as partners of Taiwan.
“But I don’t think Australia is in any kind of imminent danger.
“If anything, China’s behaviour towards Taiwan is bringing more attention, and might even encourage more partners in the region to take a stronger position on Taiwan, and that could be seen as in Australia’s interests.”
Ms Kassam said Australia would likely be taking its cues from the US and calling for peace and restraint.

“I’m not sure there’s much to be gained from Australia weighing in, in a significant way,” she said.

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