The battle between police and protesters on Hong Kong’s streets continues to rage on. Some fear how China may respond – but is a potentially more dangerous situation in Taiwan flying under the radar?

As images of Hong Kong police wearing riot gear and firing tear gas at protesters go around the globe, the stakes at play for both sides seem to be steadily increasing.

With People’s Liberation Army troops parading on the border between Hong Kong and China, and one of China’s diplomats saying Beijing was not going to “sit on its hands and watch”, it is understandable that some fear how the country will respond to the unrest.

But while the Hong Kong protests have captured political and media attention, there are some who argue that a far more dangerous situation is bubbling away on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Delivering a lecture at Victoria University of Wellington on what he deemed “the coming Taiwan crisis”, Australian academic Brendan Taylor was clear that a conflict could “potentially change life as we know it” in the Asia-Pacific.

Taylor, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, said policymakers were not treating the Taiwan situation with the serious and urgency that it deserved.

The self-ruled island has had an uneasy relationship with mainland China since the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists, which led to the former retreating to Taiwan in 1949.

Taylor said an informal status quo had prevailed since then, with Taiwan agreeing not to declare its independence, China agreeing not to use force, and the United States acting in a “dual deterrence” role with deliberate ambiguity about whether it would involve itself in a conflict.

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe demonstrated China’s more assertive approach to Taiwan at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this year. Photo: IISS.

However, that status quo was coming under strain, with China becoming more assertive and coercive in its relationship with Taiwan  – as demonstrated through Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe saying in June that the country’s military would “fight at all costs for national unity” if there was an attempt to split Taiwan from China.

In Taiwan, 72 percent of the population said they believed that Taiwan was already an independent country, with a younger generation leading the way in pushing back against China.

The unpredictability of US President Donald Trump had also been a factor, said Taylor, with Trump becoming the first US leader since 1979 to speak to Taiwan’s president shortly after he won the 2016 election.

Bolstered by support from the US Congress and influential figures such as US national security adviser John Bolton, Taylor said the US and Taiwan were as close as they had been since the 1970s, with an increase in arms sales and the passing of the Taiwan Travel Act allowing high-level visits between the two countries’ officials.

But what could prove to be the tipping point for a full-blown conflict?

A new cold war?

One scenario was the US or Taiwan crossing a Chinese “red line”, with anti-secession laws legally requiring China to use military force against Taiwan if it formally declared independence or all peaceful avenues for reunification were exhausted.

However, Taylor said China was now “deliberately ambiguous in where the red lines over this issue are”, with debate over the strength of Xi Jinping’s position likely reflected in the strength of its Taiwan stance.

Another possible flashpoint was an inadvertent escalation triggered by an accidental death or injury, with the waters and skies around Taiwan becoming increasingly crowded from military activity.

Then there was the possibility of Taiwan being dragged into a new US-China “cold war”, with some seeing signs of that approach from US Vice President Mike Pence during a high-profile foreign policy speech last October in which he lauded Taiwanese democracy.

“If we think about it rationally, and sometimes these decisions aren’t made on a rational basis…no side is likely to directly opt for conflict – that’s the good news.”

But no matter its cause, Taylor said the costs of any military conflict between China and Taiwan would be painful for all those involved.

A 2016 study had estimated there would be a 25 to 35 percent drop in China’s GDP, with significant ramifications for many in the Asia-Pacific, while the US, China, and Taiwan would all suffer heavy military losses. Chinese cyber attacks could also lead to the US losing tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, he said.

“If we think about it rationally, and sometimes these decisions aren’t made on a rational basis…no side is likely to directly opt for conflict – that’s the good news.”

But Taylor said governments needed to look at whatever was necessary to prevent an accidental escalation. One option was diplomatic negotiations and a peace agreement between China and Taiwan, while another was “enhanced deterrence” with Taiwan investing more heavily in asymmetric warfare such as missiles and mines.

The US could also abandon its noncommittal approach to Taiwan and sell the island more arms, sign a free trade agreement, or even agree on a formal alliance with a military presence.

“[A Taiwan conflict] could potentially change life as we know it – it would almost certainly trigger an economic recession in Australia if we do see China’s GDP levels decline.”

But Taylor was critical of the approach taken by politicians in his own country, saying Australia had adopted “its own kind of hide and bide approach” when it came to China.

“I think Australia has actually become a lot more timid – I’m not sure if it’s a case of paralysis or being intentionally timid. I think paralysis because the situation in which Australia finds itself is becoming more difficult given its heavy dependence upon China economically and its long-standing strategic relationship with the United States.”

While that approach was not without its merits, Taylor suggested more proactive action regarding Taiwan could be necessary given both Australia and New Zealand would indirectly suffer from any large-scale conflict.

“Without wanting to be too dramatic, it could potentially change life as we know it – because of Australia’s high degree of economic dependence on China I think it would almost certainly trigger an economic recession in Australia if we do see China’s GDP levels decline.”

While there are similarities between the concern over Taiwan and current unrest over Hong Kong, with each side gaining heart from the other’s struggle and China’s proposed extradition bill a concern in both cases, Taylor said there was one important difference.

“If we do see a situation where China really clamps down in Hong Kong, potentially uses the military…the international response for that would probably be condemnation, denouncement, maybe some sanctions, but we wouldn’t see another country sending its military in…

“Even though I personally think it would be ill-advised for the United States to give the impression that it will send military support to Taiwan in a conflict with China, particularly as its ability to do so is gradually diminishing, I think it’s much more likely.”

* Victoria University of Wellington is a sponsor and supporter of Newsroom.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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