After 14 months of lockdowns, travel bans, and economic back-sliding, these have been the worst of times for most of us – even here, where closed borders have largely prevented the deaths suffered in other parts of the world.

But ass Humphrey Bogart said in African Queen, things are never so bad that they can’t get worse. None of us like dwelling on difficulties, especially ones that should trigger preemptive action, but we can’t ignore likely future challenges just because we have enough already.

Just five years ago, most of us were China optimists. We thought that economic freedom would eventually lead to political liberalisation too. However long it might take, China was getting more like us. In any event, we thought, provided China was respected in its region, it had no history of larger ambitions so would continue to be an economic opportunity rather than a strategic threat.

That all seemed perfectly realistic then; but looks like wishful thinking now – not through any fault of the Chinese people, it should be said, but through the “wrong turn” of the Chinese party-state.

There’s been the militarisation of the South China Sea; the bullying of neighbours, even India; the trade boycotts against Australia; the abrogation of the One Country Two Systems treaty on Hong Kong; the mass internment of the Uighurs; and most dangerous for the wider world, the growing belligerence towards Taiwan – a liberal democracy of 25 million people that should not have to submit, just because it was part of China more than 100 years and two world wars ago.

No one wants to be at odds with a superpower, especially one in our region, and more particularly, one that happens to be our biggest trading partner – as China is with both Australia and New Zealand.

Even so, it’s hard to see how countries that routinely decry human rights abuses in Burma or on the West Bank, for instance; and have a history of resisting aggression on the other side of the world – as our respective military histories show – could be indifferent to an armed assault on a fellow democracy, especially one that’s living proof that there is no totalitarian gene in the make-up of the Chinese people.

So today I want to canvas three questions: is China likely to try to retake Taiwan by force; in that event, what should fellow democracies do; and perhaps the hardest one, the extent to which countries such as ours have it in us, any more, to make big sacrifices in a good cause?

If Beijing had fully respected the autonomy of Hong Kong, there may have been some chance of Taiwan agreeing to a form of association with China.  As it’s happened, the slow suffocation of one of the world’s great cities makes that prospect vanishingly remote. What’s very real though, and daily more insistent, is the Beijing government’s determination to retake Taiwan, by force if necessary, at least by the 2049 centenary of the communist party’s takeover.

Because President Xi seems to have made this his personal mission – he’s often said that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with the mainland – and because even a president-for-life can’t wait indefinitely, my fear is that a battle for Taiwan could start quite soon.

The head of the United States’ Pacific Command, not normally given to hyperbole, says that it could happen within six years. The latest Australian defence update has dropped the long-standing assumption of a “ten year strategic warning time” for major conventional war. And however it might begin, with economic boycotts, cyber-attacks, or a Quisling uprising, claiming Taiwan would have to end with the People’s Liberation Army in control of Taipei after some form of sea or air-borne assault.

It’s always been assumed that American support for Taiwan would make an unprovoked attack unlikely. Just a few weeks ago, in response to unprecedented incursions into its airspace, President Biden sailed a US battle group through the Straits of Taiwan; and the Secretary of State has just declared that it would be a “serious mistake” for anyone to change the status quo by force.

But also until quite recently, the US’ edge in high tech weaponry meant that it could easily have defeated any serious attack, despite China’s proximity. Now though, US ships and planes would be very vulnerable.

If it really wanted to, America remains more than capable of stopping a Chinese invasion; but only at the risk of very heavy casualties in a localised conflict and of massive escalation if stand-off weapons were used. Losing Seattle in order to save Taipei would be a pretty dismal option for even the most forward-leaning US president. And how might this president feel if Beijing offered, say, a climate deal in return for a freer hand on Taiwan?

But consider the alternative. If it turns out that Taiwan couldn’t rely on the United States, who could? Japan, for instance, is unlikely to be re-assured that it could rely on its admittedly much more formal US security guarantee. And if the US wouldn’t risk its armed forces for Taiwan, what confidence could its NATO allies have that America would still fight a serious war in Europe?

In the spirit of the Chinese foreign minister’s observation to his Singaporean counterpart, back in 2010, that “China is a big country and you are small countries and that is a fact”, there would be a “realist” argument that the extinguishment of Taiwan could be the necessary price for avoiding a larger war – but it’s unlikely to end there.

At one level, it would be a choice between Taiwan and China. But at a deeper level, it would be a choice between democracy and dictatorship. Opting for safety over principle might seem the prudent, practical course if that’s where it stops; but it wouldn’t, would it?

At the very least, after the collapse of the US alliance system, many countries would feel the need to make humiliating, client-state accommodations with China while others would adopt the “Israel option” of so-arming themselves to the teeth that no aggressor could think an attack worthwhile.

It would be a very different world, pervaded by Chinese party-state political norms, not Anglo-American ones, where rights are granted by the authorities rather than innate to citizens, and where nominally independent countries would be under constant pressure to defer to the “middle kingdom”.

In the absence of goodwill, the best way to avoid conflict is to make sure that it’s in no one’s interests to start one. But the only way it would be in the Beijing government’s interests not sooner-or-later to take back Taiwan is if the cost of doing so remains unbearably high.

That’s why a more explicit US commitment to Taiwan, moving from “strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity”, could be timely. But were that to be made, because the US should not have to be the world’s policeman on its own, it would expect a similar commitment from its close allies.

But here’s the big question: even if America and its allies were to declare that they would certainly help to defend Taiwan, would Beijing believe it; at least enough not to test our bluff?

Well before it came to that, in Australia, there’d be business leaders declaring that deepening conflict with China would be economic suicide. And who could blame them, given the massive dislocation that’s inevitable were trade to stop.

And while the vast majority of Chinese-Australians would be thinking of our national interest, not China’s, there’d inevitably be a few, whether bought, bullied or genuinely convinced that China’s interests were also ours, telling us that confrontation would not only be wrong-headed but racist. Plus there’d be millions of decent people, rightly fearful of bloodshed, who’d want to believe Chinese promises that all would be well once Beijing had its way.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison sees “echoes of the 1930s” in these times. There were similar arguments then, as the democracies oscillated between appeasement and resistance; between isolation and. This time, though, there’s also deep self-doubt about the moral legitimacy of countries with the West’s supposedly dubious environmental and racial history.

The fact that China is building as many until-recently-Australian-coal-fired power stations as it can, because this is the best way to get affordable and reliable power, hasn’t inspired any Australian government to make more local use of this resource. It seems crazy not also to use here the commodities China seeks, yet it’s politically impossible thanks to the climate cult.

The fact that it’s the United States and its allies calling out the mistreatment of the Uighurs, rather than their fellow-Muslims, shows that our moral aspirations are colour-blind and creed-free; but that hasn’t averted an epidemic of self-criticism about our record on race, sometimes verging on self-loathing.

Then there’s our response to the pandemic. At one level, all-credit to Western governments (and people) for the lengths we’ve gone to protect the vulnerable, putting normal life on-hold for months lest disease threaten our hospital systems and claim many lives. At another level, though, it’s evidence of a reluctance to make hard choices and keep a sense of perspective.

We still respect the wartime generation for its willingness to risk life to preserve freedom but our own collective inclination, so the pandemic has shown, is to risk freedom to preserve life. If this has been noticed by the military planners in Beijing, it could lead to doubt about the strength of our alliance commitments.

There are no easy answers here: just hard questions and ugly options. Yet for most of human history, that’s all anyone has ever faced. It’s been the wonderful privilege of the post-war generations alone, in countries like ours, to be able to expect long lives and peaceful deaths in a world that until very recently was getting safer, freer and richer.

That this should continue has to be be our most fervent hope.

Yet we can’t expect the unthinkable to remain the impossible without more effort from us. To defend ourselves better and to assert ourselves effectively, we have to believe in ourselves more. Clear thinking and sound judgment, that doesn’t condemn our countries for what’s excused in others, is needed for us to be taken seriously by our challengers.

Just because we’re already grappling with grave issues, like the pandemic, protecting the environment and building fairer societies, doesn’t preserve us from yet-direr ones – that will be harder to avoid later if they’re not pondered now.