Defence Minister Peter Dutton has suggested China would not stop taking territory if it invaded Taiwan, warning acquiescence to or appeasement of aggression by Beijing could ultimately lead to the creation of a new regional order.
Hitting back at criticism he had erred in speaking forcefully about the prospect of a war over Taiwan, Mr Dutton said it was important to think through the “next step” if China occupied the island and noted every major city in Australia was “within range of China’s missiles”.
Peter Dutton drew parallels to then-British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“If Taiwan is taken, surely the Senkakus are next,” he told the National Press Club in Canberra on Friday, referring to a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Taiwan has been the subject of intense domestic debate in recent months. Former prime minister Paul Keating claimed earlier this month Taiwan was not a vital “interest” for Australia and China was “too big and too central to be ostracised”, prompting Mr Dutton to say it was “inconceivable” Australia wouldn’t join the United States if there was a clash over the island.
National security experts are increasingly concerned about China’s aggression towards Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, with a record number of incursions into its air defence zone in recent months.
In his speech on Friday, Mr Dutton drew parallels to then-British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, later referring to Mr Keating as “Neville Keating” and “Paul Chamberlain”.
He also criticised Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong, who this week accused him of hyping up the threat of conflict and said his comments were “wildly out of step” with the US policy not to declare its intentions about Taiwan’s defence.
“Senator Wong would have you think I should not be asking any of these questions or call out China’s behaviour,” Mr Dutton said in his speech. “In my view, acquiescence or appeasement is a tactic that ends in a cul-de-sac of strategic misfortune or worse.”
Senator Wong hit back on Twitter to accuse Mr Dutton of auditioning to replace Scott Morrison as Prime Minister.
“With Mr Morrison looking over his shoulder you can expect more desperate political tactics ahead. But while they fight amongst themselves it’s Australians who aren’t getting the leadership they deserve,” she tweeted.
While the current debate was about Taiwan, Mr Dutton said the analysis “must be more honest” and must look at the “terrible price” of both action and inaction.
Beijing has threatened to take Taiwan by force if necessary but has stated its aim is for “peaceful reunification”.
“The consequences [of a war over Taiwan] would be terrible, calamitous … But equally, you need to think through what the next step is. Does an occupation or a reunification satisfy the Chinese government, or do they move into the Senkaku Islands, where at the moment they’re bumping up against the Japanese vessels?” Mr Dutton said.
“Does it stop at Taiwan or is there a rapidly changing new regional order that countries would sign up to?”
Mr Dutton said if China were to take more territories, countries would have to sign up to its signature Belt and Road global infrastructure program, which would have a military dimension.
“If Taiwan was taken back, as Hong Kong has … the Senkakus go next and then you have to ask yourself what the relationship is in countries elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
“Well they sign up to a BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] and the BRI would be a military and trade relationship … and that would be to the military detriment [of Australia] long-term – perhaps short term, perhaps medium term – as much as it would to our economic equities.
“And that’s why it’s important to be very honest with the Australian public.”
Mr Dutton said Australians had watched on as the Chinese government had engaged in “increasingly alarming” activities, including the “occupation, fabrication and militarisation” of the South China Sea and its economic coercion against Australia.
“Australians expect their governments to speak frankly about the challenges our nation faces,” he said. “To not ring-fence them from difficult issues or insult their intelligence, as Paul Keating did here a few weeks ago.
“Both the Prime Minister and I have spoken about how the times in which we live have echoes of the 1930s. The world would be foolish to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s.”
But Mr Dutton said the region was “not on an inevitable path to conflict” and countries of “goodwill” needed to ensure they “steer clear of the cliff face”.
A Chinese embassy spokesperson said Mr Dutton continued “preaching his quixotic misunderstanding of China’s foreign policy, distorting China’s efforts to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity, misguiding the Australian people on regional situations and priorities, and fanning conflict and division between peoples and nations”.
“It is inconceivable that China-Australia relationship will take on a good momentum or the overall interest of regional countries, including that of Australia, will be better promoted if the Australian government bases its national strategy on such visionless analysis and outdated mentality.”
Opposition defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor said Mr Dutton had adopted “some sort of new domino theory”, which was “a bit of a frolic by the Defence Minister”.
“I don’t think he should be suggesting that somehow China has got claims on the entire region,” he said. “What evidence does he have?”
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