How can we get out of this mess with Taiwan and China?
What is the policy that eliminates the risk of war but also prevents the Chinese Communist Party from imposing its monstrous oppression on the people of Taiwan?
The unpleasant truth is that we can't eliminate the risk. The only workable choice available to the democracies is to minimise danger by trying to deter China with military force for the indefinite future, almost certainly for decades and decades. This will cost heaps.
I say "the democracies" because this will have to be a collective effort by wealthy nations that are willing to resist authoritarian aggression, though a few non-democratic countries, such as Vietnam, may assist.
It can't just be Washington's responsibility. One reason is that, as a practical military matter, the US will need help.
The situation is much the same as in Europe in Cold War I, when democracies knew they had to arm themselves heavily to resist the Soviet Union and had no idea when they'd be able to rest.
The main alternative that is sometimes proposed is simply letting China take Taiwan, or at least saying that this business has nothing to do with Australia. We hear this from well-meaning people who are rightly afraid of war but are somehow able to put their morality in a box when it isn't convenient.
They occasionally offer the weak and disgraceful excuse that Taiwan officially is not a country - which is like saying that someone without a birth certificate shouldn't get health care.
Also consider that if a democracy of 23 million people can be thrown to the wolves then maybe one of 26 million that's 4000 kilometres south of it can be, too.
If Taiwan is lost and, as a result, China dominates a helpless and obedient East Asia, Australia's security will indeed be in grave danger.
We do not see any limit to the power and control desired by the CCP. It's always after all it can get.
Some people, also trying to avoid military options, will offer such seemingly wise but actually worthless suggestions as "just talk to China" or "the answer is simple: it's called diplomacy."
As if politicians, diplomats and other experts hadn't thought of talking.
If anyone knows how to persuade Beijing that, contrary to its decades of insistence, Taiwan need not be part of China, now's the time to speak up. The world's foreign ministries would be all ears.
Now let's look at the range of military possibilities we have to contemplate, each depending on the strength of democracies' military reaction to the Taiwanese problem.
For China, the best military possibility would be presenting the Taiwanese and their friends with irresistibly superior firepower one day and forcing them to give up without fighting.
Massive exercises that China conducted around Taiwan this month included what could be an important element of the winning-without-fighting strategy. China practiced moves for a blockade of the island.
If the democracies didn't break such a blockade, risking war, Taiwan would have neither military supply nor even enough food. It would have to give up.
The second-best possibility for Beijing would be fighting and winning a probably awful war. The outcome, including domination of East Asia, would be the same, except that it would cost blood and treasure.
The second-best military possibility for the democracies would also be fighting and winning. We must dread that almost as much as fighting and losing.
It might not be a short war, and it could spread.
MORE AGE OF THE DRAGON:
A successful outcome might be only temporary. Like Germany after World War I, China might prepare to try again.
A war over Taiwan is indeed a worse possibility than most people imagine.
And did I mentioned that China and the US are both nuclear powers that probably would be throwing conventional weapons at each other's territory? Terrifying.
This leaves us with one more military possibility: deterrence. The democracies must persuade China that it would suffer an unacceptable risk of defeat if it tried to forcibly take Taiwan.
The US has been working at this for decades. It's the old idea of preparing for war to prevent war.
What's changing is that China has become so strong, and has shaped so effective a military strategy, that the ability of the US to deter it is becoming doubtful. Other democracies are waking up to the danger and realising they must help.
Deterrence is far from a perfect strategy, but it's the only one that's available. It will have a high monetary cost. Also, it may fail: because of some miscalculation or accident, we could get a war anyway.
Which of these four military possibilities is most likely depends largely on the balance of power or, more precisely, each side's calculation of that balance.
If both sides think China is unstoppable, it can win without fighting. If China understands that the balance is strongly against it, deterrence has a good chance. In between, the risk of war is highest.
Geography and innumerable military-technical issues are involved in the calculation, but achieving enough deterrent strength certainly demands money and focus. Defence budgets have to go up, as indeed they are going up, and the military capability that the money buys must be focused on the China problem.
Australia must work hard at this. Making deterrence succeed is profoundly in our interest.
We don't need to openly commit ourselves to defending Taiwan, but we must shape our forces so they could help the US in doing so. We must contribute to raising China's perception of risk in aggression.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.