Australia would be wise not to pound ‘war drums’ over Taiwan with so much at stake


Taiwan’s military has been on alert amid large numbers of Chinese war plane incursions in its air space.
Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityAustralians woke up to the freelancing advice this week that “drums of war” were beating louder in their neighbourhood, according to the country’s top security official.

It is hardly news that regional anxiety is rising as the countries of the Indo-Pacific scramble to accommodate China’s surging power and influence.

However, an essay by Michael Pezzullo, Home Affairs secretary that spoke publicly of a possible war with an unnamed adversary, ventured into territory not previously traversed by government officials.

It appears not to have had the imprimatur of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Morrison did not repudiate Pezzullo’s remarks, nor did he endorse them. He said Australia’s goal was to “pursue peace and stability” and a “world order that favours freedom”.

This is what Pezzullo, whose responsibilities include the domestic spy agency the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, said in a message to his staff without directly mentioning the dragon in the room — China.

In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer […] until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful course — to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.

These words, untethered from any immediate threat, might have been put aside, but their timing has helped focus attention on the security challenges facing Australia at a moment of considerable strategic uncertainty.

The change of administration in Washington, along with a continuing deterioration in relations between Canberra and Beijing, has further unsettled Australia’s national security calculations in an age of regional uncertainty.

The simple question in all of this is whether conflict with China has become more likely, even inevitable? And whether hawkish elements in the Australian national security establishment, like Pezzullo, are overstating the risks?




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Is war over Taiwan likely?

The core of this discussion relates predominantly to Taiwan, amid the many other issues bedeviling relations between China and the West.

These include human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang, the abrogation of the “one country, two systems” agreements over Hong Kong, China’s abrasive, mercantilist economic practices, its suspected cyber intrusions, and its aggressive base construction in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

All of these issues cause tensions with its neighbours and the wider international community.

However, it is China’s recent threats against Taiwan that have emerged as the most vexed issue. They present a risk, however remote, of a military confrontation between superpowers.

Barring a miscalculation by either side in a tense environment, the likelihood of open conflict is low, given the potential costs involved on either side.

On the other hand, unless Washington and Beijing achieve new understandings that lower the temperature in and around the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese security will continue to weigh heavily on America and its alliance partners in the Asia-Pacific.

As an ANZUS Treaty ally of the United States — and with its own regional security preoccupations — Australia cannot avoid contemplating the possibility of a meltdown in the Taiwan Strait.

This includes the perennial question of whether Australia would involve itself militarily against China if asked to do so by its treaty ally. Such an outcome hardly bears contemplating.




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Will the US make clear its intentions on Taiwan?

In its initial interactions with China on the Taiwan issue, the new Biden administration is treading carefully. This is in contrast to its predecessor, whose foreign posturing tended to follow the fluctuating whims of Donald Trump.

Among the options for Biden’s State Department is one that would transition America’s approach to Taiwan from one of strategic ambiguity to clarity.

This means rather than taking a non-explicit approach — leaving open the option of a military response should China seek to reunify Taiwan by force — the US would make an explicit declaration that it would would, in fact, respond militarily.

This approach is gaining support in Congress, where sentiment has hardened against China’s behaviour on various fronts.

Former Senator Chris Dodd in Taiwan this month.
Former Senator Chris Dodd led a US delegation to Taiwan this month to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the self-governing island.
Taiwan Presidential Office/AP

It would be premature to declare a watershed has been reached on the Taiwan issue in which the US would make clear its intentions. But the debate appears to be heading in that direction.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, penned an influential essay in the September 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs in which he declared a policy of strategic ambiguity had “run its course”.

The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United Sates would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.

Haass has a point.

In another essay published this month by three veteran security analysts, however, the authors issue a warning that “hyping the threat China poses to Taiwan does China’s work for it”.

As troubling as the trend-lines of Chinese behaviour are, it would be a mistake to infer that they represent an unalterable catastrophe. China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to deter Taiwan independence rather than compel unification.

Why China favours a less risky approach

Beijing’s crude policy of conducting war games in Taiwan’s vicinity, including intrusions into its airspace, might suggest China is preparing retake the island. But the question is at what cost to its international standing, economic interests, and internal stability?

What is much more likely, Haass argues, is China will continue to exert pressure on Taiwan by various means in the hope that “once ripe the melon will drop from its stem”.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that in its latest five-year plan, China reaffirmed a policy guideline of pursuing “peaceful development of cross-strait relations”.




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Finally, in all of this, there is the cold hard calculation of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait.

In its latest annual report to Congress, the US Department of Defence acknowledged China had “achieved parity with — or even exceeded – the United States” in three areas: shipbuilding, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and air defence.

In other words, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait is continuing to shift in China’s favour. This reality makes loose talk of Australian “warriors” responding to the trumpet call of war even less palatable.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Vice-chancellor’s fellow, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hacking the pandemic: how Taiwan’s digital democracy holds COVID-19 at bay


Kelsie Nabben, RMIT University

Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been among the world’s best. With a population almost the size of Australia’s, the island nation has reported only 496 confirmed cases of the disease and no locally acquired infections for months.

The unlikely heroes of Taiwan’s success are “civic tech hacktivists”: coders and activists who the country’s celebrity digital minister Audrey Tang describes as the “nobodies” who “hack democracy”.

What began with the hackers of the “open source, open government” movement g0v and student protesters has grown into an experiment in radical democracy that is yielding astonishing results.




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‘Fast, fair and fun’

While the notion of “digital democracy” is as old as the internet, few countries have really tried to find out how to practice democracy in digital spheres. In Taiwan, however, there is a strong collective narrative of digital democracy, and government and civil society work together in online spaces to build public trust.

The growth of civic hacking in Taiwan has its roots in the so-called Sunflower Movement, a stream of protests in 2014 against a trade agreement with China.

The pillars of Taiwan’s approach to digital democracy are “fast, fair and fun”.

Taiwan was among the first countries in the world to detect and respond to the virus, thanks to crowd-sourced, collective intelligence through online bulletin boards. Warnings of the virus were first noted in December 31 2019, when a senior health official spotted a heavily “up-voted” post on the PTT bulletin board.

Before long, civic tech hackers were working on open data projects for citizens to interact with live maps, distributed ledger technology and chat bots to find the nearest pharmacy to claim free masks, with stock levels updated in real time to stop panic buying. Audrey Tang dubbed this rapid, iterative, bottom-up process – as opposed to a top-down government-led distribution system – “reverse procurement”.

A “humour over rumour” strategy has also been very successful to combat misinformation, fake news and disinformation. Taiwan is engineering memes to spread public awareness of positive behaviours through the virality of social media algorithms.

Government departments are responsible for addressing disinformation by providing a “memetic” response according to the “2-2-2”: a response in 20 minutes, in 200 words or less, with 2 images.

Alongside dog memes and pink face masks, one of the most successful is a rapid response to halt runs on toilet paper. This featured a cartoon video of Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang shaking his backside with a caption saying “We only have one pair of buttocks”.

Meme of television presenters obvserving Premier Su Tseng-chang’s figure with the slogan ‘We only have one pair of buttocks’.

How hacktivists reached the halls of power

How has the mindset and culture of hacktivism been cultivated to motivate civic hackers to participate in Taiwan’s digital democracy?

First, a figurehead and a manifesto. Audrey Tang is the figurehead, and her manifesto On Utopia for Public Action espouses post-party politics, free speech and deliberation, all enabled through thoughtful and experimental application of digital infrastructure.

A screenshot of text reading 'When we see 'internet of things', let’s make it an internet of beings. When we see 'virtual reality', let’s make it a shared reality. When we see 'machine learning', let’s make it collaborative learning.'
Audrey Tang’s ‘prayer’ at the Open Source, Open Society 2016 conference.
YouTube

Second, a suite of smart digital tools enable discussion, survey and online “telepresence”. These include the vTaiwan and the Join platforms for public policy participation.




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Third, inviting participation, listening to community voices, and taking action as a result. Taiwan’s culture of civic participation follows the model of open source software communities. This means working from the bottom up, sharing information, improving on the work of others, mutual benefit and participatory collective action.

g0v.asia is a ‘decentralized civic tech community from Taiwan’.

Underlying these initiatives and digital infrastructures, is two-way trust. In the words of Yun Chen, a member of the “decentralized civic tech community” g0v:

The first key is trust … it was the trust that made government officers take open data as performance instead of troubles, which led government to initiate open data and be willing to accept tech assistance from civic tech communities.

Despite low overall trust in government and leadership in Taiwan, recent polling suggests 91% of citizens are satisfied with the Central Epidemic Command Centre. Tang has said “the government needs to fully trust the citizens”, and that this trust is reciprocated.

A small experiment

With all of this enthusiasm, I wanted to try participating in digital democracy myself. I had heard Tang quote some statistics on increased public trust in several interviews, but I couldn’t find the source. At the suggestion of my Taiwanese compatriot Chih Cheng Liang, I simply asked Tang for the source on Twitter.

Tang’s response was extremely impressive: in less than 5 minutes, she replied with a link to the relevant Taiwanese poll.

A radical experiment

In many countries, policy makers don’t fully understand the technical and governance dynamics of the digital realm. In Taiwan, we are seeing what can happen when they do: bringing “hacker” tools and methods into the institutions of government to increase public participation in democracy.

It’s a vast change. Digital infrastructures are inherently political, or spheres for political engagement. They emerge out of the interaction between technology and society, and are influenced and constrained by human agents.

Radical democracy is essentially radical. Tang also sits on the board of of American economist Glen Weyl’s Radical Xchange initiative, which aims at “uprooting capitalism and democracy for a just society”.

There is now talk of trying out the collective decision making system known as “quadratic voting”, and other experimental crowd-sourcing mechanisms that have surfaced from the Ethereum blockchain community.

Other countries are free to pick up both lessons and digital innovations from Taiwan’s innovations. Many tools and models have been made available on an open-source basis at Taiwancanhelp.us.

An image from g0v.tw illustrates the movement’s goal of radical democracy.




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The Conversation


Kelsie Nabben, Researcher / PhD Candidate, RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub / Digital Ethnography Research Centre, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.