War of words: Australia can expect a hostile response from China to strategic defence review

Australia’s strategic defence review, to be made public on Monday, is likely to spark a hostile response from China and set off a new round of claim and counterclaim about the precarious relationship between the two countries.

Sir Angus Houston, the former head of the Australian military who led the review with the former defence minister Stephen Smith, said when it was launched last year the strategic circumstances were “the worst I have ever seen in my career and lifetime”.

“Clearly, our circumstances have changed dramatically over the recent past. A land war in Europe, all sorts of issues in north-east Asia, particularly around Taiwan, east China Sea, issues in South-East Asia and issues up on the Himalayan border and northern India … we also have disruptive technologies coming into play. It’s a fast-changing environment.”

But as the Aukus program and the review have sharpened focus on the escalating military situation, some China experts argue that Australia’s approach should be governed by factors much wider than defence and security.

Prof Jocelyn Chey, an adjunct professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute and a former senior Australian diplomat, was a government official responsible for trade relations with China in the Whitlam government, which first established diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Chey says the “drums of war” have been loudly beaten by MPs and government officials for a number of years, with those views amplified by large sections of the media, which has dramatically shifted public opinion.

“The ‘China threat’ line has become standard since 2019,” she says.

“With this environment, the government has a difficult line to pursue: to advocate for moderation, ‘holding the line’ and avoiding confrontation while avoiding accusations of being ‘soft on China’. Ministers are aware of the fragility of our economy and the importance of our trading relationship with China.”

The tone has changed noticeably since the election of the Labor government last year. The foreign minister, Penny Wong, told an audience in London in January it was the responsibility of all countries “to ask ourselves how can we each use our national power, our influence, our networks, our capabilities, to avert catastrophic conflict”.

“So we must ensure that competition between major powers is managed responsibly.”

But even before the release of the defence strategic review, it has been cast as squarely aimed at countering China’s increased military and naval power and its assertiveness in the region.

China will react loudly, and negatively, to the announcement, Chey predicts. But this condemnation will be as much for a domestic audience – which will expect censure – as it will be a genuine signal of disapproval to Australia.

Chey says Australia’s strategic contemplation of China should be far more comprehensive and broadened to include China’s policies and objectives in space, its use of the internet, the environment and Beijing’s engagement with global governance institutions.

“A review of China policy has to be wider than defence and security. It should also extend to the potential of closer collaboration with China. This could help to resolve the climate crisis, prevent global pandemics, resolve international flashpoint issues [such as] Ukraine … and allow research collaboration for mutual benefit.”

Australia’s minister of foreign affairs, Penny Wong, (right) and vice president of French Polynesia Jean-Christophe Bouissou at the Pacific Islands Forum special leaders retreat in February.
Australia’s minister of foreign affairs, Penny Wong, (right) and the vice-president of French Polynesia, Jean-Christophe Bouissou, at the Pacific Islands Forum in February. Photograph: Leon Lord/AFP/Getty Images

In the military sphere, there is also ample precedent for a different way to communicate, she says.

Between 1997 and 2019, Canberra and Beijing held 22 iterations of the Australia-China Defence Strategic Dialogue, a conduit for senior military officers and government officials to directly discuss defence and security matters. After the recent Aukus announcement, two “mid-level” Chinese embassy officials attended a briefing offered by Australia.

Many people have forgotten the dialogue’s existence, Chey says.

“If the 2023 review had been discussed in advance, even if only in general outline, this would have greatly reduced the heat of a negative response. Even after the event, it would be useful to resurrect this dialogue or some similar forum for a discussion of the factors that the review panel took into consideration in reaching their final advice to government.”

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Quick Guide

China-Taiwan relations


A brief history

The Chinese government claims Taiwan as a province of China and has not ruled out taking it by force.

At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the losing Kuomintang government fled to the island of Taiwan, establishing the Republic of China (ROC) government in exile. On the mainland the Chinese Communist party (CCP) established the People’s Republic of China. 

From the 1970s onwards many nations began switching their formal ties from the ROC to Beijing, and today fewer than 15 world governments recognise the ROC (Taiwan) as a country.

The CCP has never ruled over Taiwan and since the end of the civil war Taiwan has enjoyed de facto independence. 

Since its decades-long period of martial law ended in the 1980s, Taiwan has also grown to become a vibrant democracy with free elections and media.

But unification is a key goal of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. The island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has said Taiwan is already a sovereign country with no need to declare independence, but Beijing regards Taiwan’s democratically elected government as separatists.

Under Xi’s rule, aggression towards Taiwan has increased and analysts believe the threat of invasion is at its highest in decades. 

In recent years the People’s Liberation Army has sent hundreds of war planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, as part of greatly increased “grey zone” activities, which are combat-adjacent but do not meet the threshold of war. 

Taiwan is working to modernise its military and is buying large numbers of military assets and weapons from the US in the hope it can deter Xi and the CCP from making a move. Helen Davidson 

Photograph: Tingshu Wang/X06979

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Taiwan’s status and security – so often the key focus in any Australian discussion on China – is “a critical issue” Chey says.

“It is a major economy, has a population the size of Australia’s, and we have good relations with the government and people of Taiwan, who overwhelmingly reject the idea of being absorbed into the mainland body politic and losing their autonomy and hard-won democracy. Because of the US commitment to the defence of Taiwan and Australia’s Anzus obligations, we are very concerned about the PRC’s Taiwan policy.”

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly reiterated China’s position: that Beijing regards the self-governing island as a renegade province that should be reunited with the mainland.

Xi has not ruled out using force to achieve that aim, and the director of the CIA, William Burns, has said US intelligence shows Xi has told his People’s Liberation Army “to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027”, though without a commitment to any action by that date.

Last month, Xi said China “should actively oppose the external forces and secessionist activities of Taiwan independence” and “unswervingly advance the cause of national rejuvenation and reunification”.

Asked this month about Australia’s stake in Taiwan’s freedom, the chief of the defence force, Gen Angus Campbell, said “anything that undermines the security, the stability, and the prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region in which we live is of interest to Australia”.

But Campbell said conflict would represent a failure of all other options, urging “all parties to areas of international tension to find other ways to resolve that tension”. He warned that if conflict broke out, it could not be controlled.

“Conflict sometimes may be necessary as the absolute last resort. But Shakespeare got it right: when you unleash the dogs of war, you can’t necessarily be confident to contain the outcome.”

Elena Yi-Ching Ho, a foreign policy fellow with Young Australians in International Affairs and a cybersecurity analyst, says the imperative to avoid conflict over Taiwan would be assisted by strengthening Australian cooperation with the island through increased official visits, stronger economic ties and boosted nongovernmental relations.

“It’s important for Canberra to signal Beijing that Taiwan has allies in the region through practical actions, not just having government officials making statements.”

Yi-Ching Ho says the Chinese government will almost certainly accuse Canberra of damaging the “thawing” China-Australia relationship through the defence strategic review, even if it doesn’t explicitly name China as an adversary or target.

The Aukus submarine agreement between the US, UK and Australia was decried by China as “fuelling an arms race, and hurt[ing] peace and stability in the region”. The review is likely to spark similar denunciation, Yi-Ching Ho says.

“I think Australia should continue to stick to its foreign policy with China: collaborate where they can but disagree where they must. An important lesson for Canberra from the past few years is to diversify its economic dependency on China and strengthen its relations with other Indo-Pacific countries.”


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