The political status and legal status of Taiwan are contentious issues. Australia's current position towards Taiwan is largely based on the Joint Communiqué with the People's Republic of China signed by the Whitlam Labor government in 1972. Under this agreement, the Australian government officially adheres to the One-China policy in which Australia recognises the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the ‘sole legitimate government of China.’ Currently, only twenty-one UN member states and the Holy See officially recognise Taiwan. The Joint Communiqué establishes ‘guidelines for official Australian contact with Taiwan,’ explicitly stating that Australia ‘does not consider Taiwan to have the status of national government.’ Despite the Australian government not having an official relationship with Taiwan, a substantial unofficial relationship has developed through cultural and trade links.
Taiwan and Australia have developed strong economic and trade links, with Taiwan currently Australia's seventh largest customer for exports. The value of exports between both Australia and Taiwan equates to A$7 billion. The Australia-Taiwan Business Council is based in Sydney, and Taiwan has an official, government-sponsored branch office of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council in Sydney.
Prior to 1941, relations between Taiwan and Australia were described as 'episodic.' One reason for this was Australia's reliance on Britain, as it was only in 1923 that Britain had granted its dominions permission to conclude treaties with foreign countries.
Australia's relations with Taiwan between 1949 and 1971 operated in a political environment which has been coined the 'China question', a term used to encompass the 'contest between two rival authorities, each claiming to represent the one China.’ Since 1949, China has insisted that Taiwan is part of the PRC, while Taiwan contends that it is an independent state. From 1949 to 1971, Taiwan and its affiliated organisations and conventions were represented in the UN by officials of the 'Republic of China in Taipei.' Under this title, Taiwan entered into and became a party to a number of multilateral treaties and conventions sponsored by the UN and other bodies, despite certain countries, predominantly in the Eastern bloc, opposing Taiwan's legal ability to enter into such arrangements.
The Australian policy towards Taiwan before 1972 has been described as one of ambivalence. During the 1950s Australia’s relationship with Taiwan was not particularly close. There were ‘official diplomatic relations’ as Australia did not believe in the One-China policy at this time, and some Australian officials visited Taiwan during this period. These included Sir Arthur Tange, Secretary for External Affairs in October 1957 and then-Senator John Gorton in November 1960. Nevertheless, Taiwan refused to appoint an ambassador between 1951 and 1959 in protest over Australia's indifference towards Taiwan.
On 11 June 1966, the Australian government, under the direction of the Holt Liberal government, established an embassy in Taipei. This was an unusual decision given the socio-political climate at the time. During this period the Soviet Bloc, India, Pakistan, Burma and France officially recognised the PRC. Australia's decision to go against the international diplomatic current was due to a combination of anti-communist sentiment, Australia's participation in the Vietnam war, and Australia's close relationship with the US.
Despite these tensions, Australia’s economic relationship with the PRC grew substantially. Strong trade relations were established during the 1950s–1960s, with wool, iron and later wheat the predominant Australian exports. In 1956 an Australian Trade commissioner was sent to Taipei to consider the development of trade between Taiwan and Australia. In November 1958 and March 1959 a commercial counsellor from Manila was sent to Taipei on ‘instructions from Canberra to strengthen relations between the two countries.’
International affairs in 1971 contributed to Australia's decision to officially recognise the PRC. During this period there were a series of Pacific Islands Independence Movements, and the UN decided to reject the claim by the Republic of China (Taiwan) to independent statehood. Following this announcement, a policy of non-interference in Taiwan issues was adopted by the UN, declaring that it was an internal problem to be solved by the PRC. Australia followed the general political atmosphere of the time in recognising Beijing, culminating in the 21 December Joint Communiqué with the PRC. The technical language and terms agreed upon in this document were also utilised by declarations between the PRC and Canada, Italy and other states.
Following the Joint Communiqué with the PRC, official diplomatic links with Taiwan were disconnected. Nevertheless, relations continued on an unofficial basis. In 1981, the Australian Commerce and Industry office (ACIO) was established in Taiwan, which acted as an unofficial organisation for trade representatives, as well as tourist promotion and visa application. It is based in Canberra to provide an active connection between the business sector and government departments and ACIO. In October 1988, the Taiwan Market Service (TMS) was created to establish an Australian equivalent to the ACIO in Taiwan.
In March 1990, an Australian education centre was created in Taipei to promote mutual student and cultural exchange. In addition, since 1989 Taiwan began focusing on a policy of 'flexible diplomacy,' which included an emphasis on creating informal relations or 'substantial relations' rather than formal diplomatic relations. This policy was embodied in the creation of Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices in various countries, with more than 50 such offices currently located around the world.
Australia and Taiwan used other documents that were not technically legally binding to develop their unofficial relationship. These included Memorandums of Understanding, which under Australia law are not documents to which the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties applies. Instead, such agreements encourage relations between states on a 'moral and political basis.' Arrangements were made on a variety of topics such as access by Taiwanese fishing vessels to Australia’s Exclusive economic zone, which were established in 1979 and 1986.
1990 to present
A review on Australia’s policy towards Taiwan was undertaken and on 26 November 1990, the Minister for Technology and Commerce, Senator John Button, declared government support for closer Australia economic relations with Taiwan. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 led to increased tensions between the PRC and Australia, thus contributing to a closer relationship with Taiwan. The incident reportedly shocked Australia and Prime Minister Bob Hawke publicly cried at the memorial service for the victims who were killed. Another factor that contributed to closer unofficial relations was the 'democratisation' of Taiwan. Legislation was passed to protect Taiwanese investment products in Australia, as the Taiwanese government feared that the PRC may claim them.
Australia's trade with Taiwan in 1993 amounted to $5.1 billion, while trade with the PRC was slightly greater at $5.2 billion. In 1992, Taiwan was Australia’s fourth-largest Asian trading partner and seventh most important overall. Despite Taiwan’s inability to conclude multilateral treaties, Australia has concluded various bilateral agreements with Taiwan. This includes establishing direct air links with Taiwan in 1991, which saw an increase in tourism resulting in Taiwan becoming Australia’s third largest market in Asia. The period to receive an Australian visa in Taiwan was reduced to 48 hours, and a memorandum of understanding was agreed relating to ‘the promotion of investment and technology transfer and to the protection of intellectual property’.
Political and cultural links also improved. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office was formally opened by Senator Gareth Evens in March 1991. Ministerial visits increased in the early 1990s, beginning with the visit of Tourism and Resources Minister Alan Griffiths in October 1992.
The 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis affected Australia’s relationship with both Taiwan and the PRC. The PRC fired missiles close to Taiwan in an attempt to influence Taiwanese political elections. Australia’s response to the crisis was that Beijing should exercise ‘constraint’. This was expressed by Alexander Downer, who had recently been appointed Foreign Minister in the Howard government. Australia supported the US reaction of deploying two aircraft carriers to the east of Taiwan. These events caused tension with the PRC, as they perceived that the US was executing a ‘new containment strategy in which Australia and Japan were anchors.’ Consequently, Australia-China relations suffered during this period, demonstrating the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue.
Following the crisis, the Howard government attempted to strengthen relations with the PRC, resulting in reaffirming its One-China policy stance. This was achieved through a series of ministerial and official visits by Australian diplomats, politicians and other government representatives. In September 1996, the chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), General John Baker, visited China to seek an ‘upgrade in Sino-Australian exchanges on defence and strategic issues as a ‘confidence-building’ measure.’ This culminated in an agreement in 1997 to start a range of annual PRC-Australia talks focused on security within the Asia Pacific region. In addition, there were agreements for the exchange of military professionals and officials to attend each other's strategic studies Institutes. When Howard visited the PRC, he not only stressed Australia's stand on the One-China policy, but also emphasised that Australia's national interests would be decided independently of US policy direction.
In the later 1990s, Australia's relations with Taiwan were largely influenced by what has been called the ‘Armitage Scenario'. In 1999, Richard Armitage, former US Assistant Secretary of Defence, visited Australia and expressed that should a conflict arise, the United States would ‘demand Australian support, including military support if demanded.’ If Australia did not agree to this arrangement, ANZUS would be concluded. This placed Australia in a precarious position with the PRC, which was encompassed in a statement released by an aide of Jiang Zemin, saying that Australia faced ‘very serious consequences’ if it sided with the US in a future Taiwan conflict. Following those events, Jiang made a state visit to Australia, during which Howard reassured him Australia still followed the One-China policy.
This placed Australia in a complicated political situation, as Australia was still trying to retain its economic and cultural relationship with Taiwan. This led to Howard implementing a 'dual policy' towards the China-Taiwan issue, in which it encouraged the PRC to ‘exercise restraint in issuing threats of using military force against Taiwan.’ This was emphasised by Australian government officials, particularly from DFAT, when they met with the PRC's Ambassador to Australia to express their concern over a white paper intimating the PRC would employ force against Taiwan if it failed to negotiate unification expeditiously.
Future of Australia–Taiwan relations
While there has been substantial development in terms of cultural and other unofficial links, Australia's policy towards Taiwan is still largely dictated by Australia's recognition of the People's Republic of China. However, Australia does have long term concerns about the potential for a future military conflict between Taiwan and the PRC which would create uncertainty and instability in Australia's sphere of influence. From the perspective of Taiwan, Australia was its eighth largest source of imports and thirteenth market for exports in 2000, making Australia its eleventh largest trading partner. The current relationship between Australia and Taiwan functions on two fundamental understandings. First, both Australia and Taiwan recognise it is an unofficial relationship. Secondly, Taiwan is 'careful not to embarrass Australia' and to adhere to the mutual understandings that have been agreed upon.
- Nicholas Thomas, Re-Orientating Australia-Taiwan Relations 1972 to present (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), p. 2.
- Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Australia Taiwan Bilateral Relations (Report of a visit to Taiwan of Australian Parliament: July 1994), p. 11.
- Ivan Shearer, ‘International Legal relations between Australia and Taiwan: Behind the Façade.’ Australia Year Book of International Law 28.113 (2000)
- Nicholas Thomas, Re-Orientating Australia-Taiwan Relations 1972 to present (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004)
- Nicholas Thomas, Re-Orientating Australia-Taiwan Relations 1972 to present (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), p. 35.
- Nicholas Thomas, Re-Orientating Australia-Taiwan Relations 1972 to present (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), p. 38.
- Nicholas Thomas, Re-Orientating Australia-Taiwan Relations 1972 to present (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), p. 40.
- Thomas,Nicholas, Re-Orientating Australia-Taiwan Relations 1972 to present (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004)
- Nicholas Thomas, Re-Orientating Australia-Taiwan Relations 1972 to present (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), p. 50.
- Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Australia Taiwan Bilateral Relations (Report of a visit to Taiwan of Australian Parliament: July 1994), p. 21.
- Anthony Van Fossen, "The struggle for recognition: Diplomatic Competition between Taiwan and China in Oceania," Journal of Chinese political Science 12.2 (2007)
- Gary Klintwood, Modern Taiwan in the 1990’s, Canberra papers on Strategy and Defence N0 75 (Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, 1991), p.189.
- Jurgen Domes, ‘Taiwan in 1991: Searching for Political Consensus,’ Asian Survey 32.1 (1991)
- Ivan Shearer, ‘International Legal relations between Australia and Taiwan: Behind the Façade.’ Australia Year Book of International Law 28.113 (2000), p. 124.
- Gary Klintwood, Australia's Taiwan Policy 1942 to 1992 (Australia: Australian National University, 1993), p. 108.
- Gary Klintwood, Australia’s Taiwan Policy 1942 to 1992 (Australia: Australian National University, 1993), p. 106.
- Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Australia Taiwan Bilateral Relations (Report of a visit to Taiwan of Australian Parliament: July 1994)
- Gary Klintwood, Australia’s Taiwan Policy 1942 to 1992 (Australia: Australian National University, 1993), p. 108
- Austin, G., ed., 1997. Missile Diplomacy and Taiwan’s Future: Innovations in Politics and Military Power. Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence No.122. Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
- Richardson, M. 1996. ‘’Neighbours strike neutral pose for fear of aggravating Beijing.’ Australian, 13 March.
- McGregor, R. 1996. 'ADF Chief seeks to reassure Beijing'. Australian, 27 September
- Greenlees, D. and McGregor, R. 1996. ‘Downer Warns China Over War Games.’ Australian, 13 March
- William T. Tow, "Australia, the United States and a ‘China Growing Strong’:Managing Conflict Avoidance", Department of Government, The University of Queensland (Paper for: The annual Australasian Political Science Association Conference Canberra ACT, 4–6 October 2000)
- (Hartcher 1999)