TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. TONY ABBOTT AC
REMARKS TO THIRD DANUBE GEOPOLITICAL SUMMIT BUDAPEST
Put yourself in the shoes of Vladimir Putin in mid-February last year.
He’s thinking: Ukraine is a rebel province that should once more be part of greater Russia; the Ukrainians are divided and Zelensky is a flake; the West is weak and Biden is addled; and my army can be in Kyiv in a week.
Is it any wonder that he invaded? Because unlike western democratic politicians who need to get elected, and re-elected, dictators can focus on what they see as national glory, ahead of trying to build a better life for their mostly-taken-for-granted subjects.
The big error of democratic policy-making is the assumption that dictators inhabit the same mental universe as democrats; and its corollary, the wishful thinking that dictators place a high value on human life and wouldn’t see tens of thousands of deaths, maybe even more, as a fair trade for national aggrandisement.
So far, although Putin’s Ukraine adventure has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, probably more Russian than Ukrainian, all that would worry him is that he hasn’t yet won; and that his failure to triumph has put his own survival at stake, as shown by the brief Wagner rebellion.
Quite apart from the cost in smashed cities, human misery, and lives cut short, in the wider world, the Ukraine war has meant food shortages in Africa and the Middle East, added to the cost of living crisis in Europe and elsewhere, and brought closer than in many decades the spectre of a World War Three.
Terrible though all that has been, a war over Taiwan would be worse, by several orders of magnitude, due to both antagonists’ pivotal role in the globalised economy and America’s defence guarantees to Taiwan.
If America helped to defend Taiwan, there would be war between two nuclear-armed superpowers. Casualties would be massive, global escalation ever-present, and the wider world deranged as nearly all countries took sides.
If America failed to defend Taiwan, the global system would collapse as US allies realised that America would not run serious risks for others. China would become the hegemon of East Asia, with some countries making the best accommodation they could with the new force, and others arming themselves to the teeth to avoid subservience.
Even a warlike build-up would disrupt most air traffic and maritime trade in East Asia, and jeopardise all the supply chains dependent on Taiwanese chips, Chinese intermediate-goods and Singaporean refined oil. In most-developed economies, there would be shortages and economic hardship even before a shot were fired.
Yet put yourself in Xi Jinping’s shoes.
He’s thinking: my life’s mission is ending the century of humiliation by taking back Hong Kong and Taiwan; yet China’s population and maybe its wealth too has peaked; the American people are divided and its leadership be-fuddled; my own people are restive as the economy slows and expectations are dashed; what better way, and what better time, to reinforce the CCP’s legitimacy and secure my legacy than a national crusade to reunite the motherland before it’s too late?
As Ukraine shows, war’s horror to us, doesn’t make it unthinkable to others. Its madness to us, doesn’t make it irrational to others with different priorities.
With the Chinese communist government repeatedly declaring its firm intention to take Taiwan, by force if necessary, and announcing its intention to be the world’s top power by mid-century, an assault across the Straits is more a question of when than if.
While military planners judge that China wants a few more years to improve its amphibious and anti-submarine warfare capability, the biggest factors in Beijing’s decision-making will be: can it succeed, and is it needed for regime survival?
Both could soon be in play which is why raising the stakes for Beijing of any adventurism across the Taiwan Strait should be a global priority.
Is the chance of an assault on Taiwan in the next couple of years 50 per cent or 10 per cent? No one can judge, but it’s high enough for serious countries to have thought through their response.
Australians are psychologically un-prepared and militarily unready for our part in the fight we would have to join, if the US did – should we want our alliance to survive.
Given the high risk of conflict, democracies’ natural tendency to assume business-as-usual, and understandable reluctance to prepare for something they abhor, is now akin to sleep walking through lotus land.
For Australia, deterrence should mean seeking to base Australian ships and planes in Japan, in a sign of solidarity with our fellow island democracy, and its threatened neighbour, so that Beijing must fear that any conflict could be China versus the world, rather than the pitifully unequal struggle of 1.4 billion Chinese against 25 million Taiwanese.
A very high priority should be reassuring all those Australians of Chinese background that our apprehensions about Beijing do not extend to them.
Deterrence means helping Taiwan to harden its military bases, to strengthen its missile shield, to build its capacity to destroy an invasion fleet, and to wreak havoc on Chinese military bases. And it should mean removing Chinese intermediate goods from the democracies’ key supply chains to minimise vulnerability to economic pressure.
None of this implies any weakening whatsoever of our commitment to Ukraine because the best discouragement for one dictator is the defeat of another.