China's Taiwan Law Places Australia in Awkward Position

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The passage of a controversial Chinese law allowing the use of force to prevent a Taiwan breakaway is putting pressure on the government of Australia, which is caught between defense treaty obligations to the U.S. and growing trade relations with Beijing.

Despite objections voiced by Taiwan, the U.S. and Japan, China's rubber-stamp parliament on Monday passed the "anti-secession law" by 2,896 votes to none, with two abstentions.

The law, effective immediately, provides for the use of unspecified "non-peaceful means and other necessary measures" against Taiwan if other methods fail. China claims Taiwan as its own and envisages eventual reunification, along the lines of the "one country, two systems" formula that governed Hong Kong's return to mainland rule in 1997.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the law "unfortunate" and said the U.S. government opposed "any attempts to determine the future of Taiwan by anything other than peaceful means."

Any future Chinese aggression against Taiwan could trigger intervention by American forces.

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act commits the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself and "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan."

Were a conflict to erupt in the Taiwan Strait, Australia could also be drawn in because the 53-year-old ANZUS Treaty obliges Canberra to support the U.S. in the event of an armed attack in the Pacific.

Australia is a close security ally of Washington and last year finalized a free-trade agreement with the U.S.

But it is also discussing an FTA with China, now Australia's third-largest trading partner, after the U.S. and Japan.

Illustrating the importance of the two giants to Australia, one day after President Bush addressed a joint sitting of the federal parliament in Canberra in 2003, President Hu Jintao followed suit, becoming the first non-American head of state to do so.

Prime Minister John Howard used the twin visits to emphasize that Australia could retain its crucial relationship with the U.S. at the same time as developing stronger ties to its Asian neighbors.

China has made it clear, however, that it expects Australian backing for its stance on Taiwan.

When he addressed the parliament, Hu urged Australia to play "a constructive role" in the peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan, stressing that the threat to regional peace came from pro-independence elements on the island.

An Australian newspaper recently quoted a senior Chinese official as saying that Beijing did not want to see the issue of Taiwan - which it regards as an internal matter - being taken up in bilateral military alliances, whether between Australia and the U.S. or between Japan and the U.S.

Taiwan has also made a bid for Canberra's support. President Chen Shui-bian appealed in an Australian television program aired last week for Australia to demonstrate some sympathy for the island democracy, to prevent it from becoming an "orphan in international society."


Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer spoke cautiously about the issue in a radio interview on Monday, saying that in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, Australia would be bound to consult with the U.S and could invoke the ANZUS treaty.

"But that is a very different thing from saying that we would make a decision to go to war," he said, adding that it was not productive to discuss in advance a likely response to an "entirely hypothetical" situation.

Downer said Australia would have preferred it had China not passed the anti-secession law.

Along with many other countries, he said, "we don't think that China should resolve the Taiwan status question militarily has got to be done through negotiations with Taiwan."

Prof. Xiaoming Huang of the Asia Studies Institute in Wellington said Tuesday that although Taiwan is a crucial issue for Beijing, so too is its need for diversified sources of energy supplies to feed its rapidly-growing economy.

China's is a major consumer of natural gas, coal and iron ore from Australia.

As such, Huang thought it unlikely that China would use "economic leverage" and try to make Australian backing on Taiwan a condition for FTA talks.

More likely, the two sides would keep economic and political issues separate, as with the U.S.-China relationship.

Monday's vote by Chinese lawmakers came a day after Hu urged the People's Liberation Army to "step up preparations for possible military struggle and enhance our capabilities to cope with crises, safeguard peace, prevent wars, and win the wars, if any."

Hu was speaking after his appointment as head of the government's Central Military Commission, the final senior post he has assumed to complete the drawn-out transfer of power from the now-retired Jiang Zemin.

See earlier story:
New Chinese Law Allows 'Non-Peaceful' Actions Against Taiwan (Mar. 08, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow