The world faces the biggest war since World War II if the US intervenes in any future conflict between China and Taiwan, a top security expert has warned.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory and has been infuriated by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island this week.
China has announced a series of live fire military drills off the coast of Taiwan, and Chinese jets crossed the median line between the two nations in the early hours of Thursday morning (AEST).
The Lowy Institute’s International Security Program director Sam Roggeveen told The Project’s Carrie Bickmore on Wednesday evening that Australia could end up getting dragged into the tense international crisis.
“If the United States is determined to back Taiwan, then it seems obvious that the Americans will ask us to help,” he said.
“I think we really need to think twice about whether the relationship with the United States is as important and as useful as it has been for many decades is to important that we want to take that risk.
“That’s an incredibly sobering moment and Australian decision makers would be negligent if they didn’t think through the full implications of that.”
Mr Roggeveen added that if the US did get involved in any war between Taiwan and China, it would be disastrous.
“If the Americans do get involved then all bets are off,” he said.
“We are talking about certainly the largest war that we’ve seen in Asia since Vietnam and potentially the biggest war we have seen in the world since World War II that could involve the use of nuclear weapons.”
The security expert added that while China harbours ambitions to re-take China – which broke away from the mainland in 1949 – it does not yet have the capabilities to do so.
“Think something akin to the opening scene of Private Ryan, but with 21st century weapons,” Mr Roggeveen explained.
“China doesn’t have enough ships yet to do that kind of job.”
Pelosi landed in Taiwan late on Tuesday despite a series of increasingly stark threats from Beijing, which views the island as its territory and warned it would consider the visit a major provocation.
China responded swiftly, announcing what it said were “necessary and just” military drills in the seas just off Taiwan’s coast – some of the world’s busiest waterways.
“In the current struggle surrounding Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, the United States are the provocateurs, China is the victim,” Beijing’s foreign ministry said.
But Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said the island of 23 million would not be cowed.
“Facing deliberately heightened military threats, Taiwan will not back down. We will… continue to hold the line of defence for democracy,” Tsai said at an event with Pelosi in Taipei.
She also thanked the 82-year-old US lawmaker for “taking concrete actions to show your staunch support for Taiwan at this critical moment”.
China tries to keep Taiwan isolated on the world stage and opposes countries having official exchanges with Taipei.
Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, is the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
“Today, our delegation… came to Taiwan to make unequivocally clear we will not abandon our commitment to Taiwan,” she said at the event with Tsai.
She added her group had come “in peace to the region”.
Before leaving Taiwan, Pelosi also met with several dissidents who have previously been in the crosshairs of China’s wrath – including Tiananmen protest student leader Wu’er Kaixi.
“We are in high agreement that Taiwan is in the frontline (of democracy),” Wu’er said.
“Both the United States and Taiwan governments need to… conduct more in defending human rights.” Pelosi’s delegation left Taiwan on Wednesday evening en route to South Korea, her next stop in an Asia tour that has included stops in Singapore and Malaysia. She will wrap up her trip in Japan.
After her departure, Taiwan’s defence ministry announced that 27 Chinese warplanes had entered the island’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ).
Over the last two years, Beijing has ramped up military incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ – which is not the same as the island’s territorial airspace, but includes a far greater area.
The ministry published a map that showed 16 Su-30s and 6 J-11s had crossed the so-called “median line” of the Taiwan Strait – an unofficial boundary in the narrow waterway, which separates the island from the mainland and straddles vital shipping lanes.
Chinese jets also crossed over the so-called “median line” during two high-level visits by US officials in 2020 during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Nevertheless, that is still a relatively rare occurrence.
President Joe Biden’s administration said in the run-up to Pelosi’s visit that US policy towards Taiwan remained unchanged.
This means support for its government while diplomatically recognising Beijing over Taipei, and opposing a formal independence declaration by Taiwan or a forceful takeover by China.
Beijing summoned US Ambassador Nicholas Burns over Pelosi’s visit, while the Chinese military declared it was on “high alert” and would “launch a series of targeted military actions in response” to the visit.
The drills will include “long-range live ammunition shooting” in the Taiwan Strait.
The zone of Chinese exercises will be within 20 kilometres (12 miles) of Taiwan’s shoreline at some points, according to coordinates released by the Chinese military.
Taiwan’s defence ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang said Wednesday that some of the areas of China’s drills “breach into… (Taiwan’s) territorial waters”.
“This is an irrational move to challenge the international order.” But a source with the Chinese military told AFP that the exercises would be staged “in preparation for actual combat”.
“If the Taiwanese forces come into contact with the PLA on purpose and accidentally fires a gun, the PLA will take stern countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Taiwanese side,” the source warned.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which sets the government’s China policies, accused Beijing of “vicious intimidation” and called for democratic countries to “unite and take a solemn stand to punish and deter” Beijing.