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In this report, the authors explore the equities of four middle powers — Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom — and the roles that they might play in deterring or limiting conflict between China and Taiwan over the Taiwan Strait. A country's equities are its long-term interests in a scenario, such as a cross-Strait conflict. Middle powers are nations that are not small but lack the sheer size and influence to significantly disrupt the global order. However, middle-power countries can influence international affairs through mediation and institution-building, and middle powers can also play a balancing role between adversarial great powers.

The authors use four countries — Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom — to conduct a case-study analysis on how middle powers perceive China's interests and their own nations' interests in a cross-Strait conflict. The authors held discussions with analysts and policymakers from each middle-power nation on such topics as whether these nations would support Taiwan in a cross-Strait conflict, the threats that China might perceive from these nations, and whether the respondents think that China would initiate a conflict with Taiwan. The authors supplemented these discussions with an open-source literature review on how middle powers have been defined historically to support their analysis of each middle power's equities in a potential cross-Strait conflict. Finally, the authors offer several recommendations for future middle-power strategies that might be useful to policymakers in Taiwan, the United States, and middle powers with a stake in the Asia-Pacific region.

Key Findings

  • In the event of a cross-Strait conflict, the equities shared among the middle powers include widespread political support for Taiwan, a low likelihood of active military involvement in a cross-Strait conflict, and a limited ability to deter or de-escalate a conflict. However, subject-matter experts from the middle powers perceive China as unlikely to initiate such a conflict.
  • Support from the middle powers would be confined to diplomatic support for Taiwan and endorsement of U.S. sanctions on China. Any involvement in a U.S.-led military response would likely be limited to logistics and materiel support.
  • According to subject-matter experts from middle powers, China does not perceive Asia-Pacific middle-power capabilities as a threat because they are too weak militarily to take on China, either alone or in a coalition.
  • China's main goal is to legitimize its current domestic political system (i.e., the rule of the Chinese Communist Party). An invasion of Taiwan would jeopardize this goal. This view differs from that of U.S. policymakers.
  • Middle-power influence is localized and diminished. Current middle-power perceptions of influence include a greater regionalized focus on having influence close to home, a sense of declining influence of middle powers overall relative to the post–Cold War unipolar period, and a sense of a loss of strategic autonomy among allied middle powers.

Recommendations

  • Mediation should be pursued only as a long-term objective because, at present, no middle power has enough influence, even in coalition with other middle powers, over both China and the United States to play such a role.
  • Middle powers should develop a trade sanctions plan targeting China in the event of a cross-Strait invasion by China. The participation of the United States, its allies, and their close partners, which collectively buy over half of China's exports, could serve as a substantial deterrent to a cross-Strait conflict.
  • Middle powers should convene a Track 1.5 or 2 dialogue with the United States for common understanding. A Track 1.5 dialogue involves a mix of policy analysts and government officials participating in a nonofficial capacity, while a Track 2 dialogue involves policy analysts on each side. The dialogues should cover two topics for which there appear to be wide discrepancies: (1) understanding China's goals, diplomacy, One China policy, and views toward Taiwan and (2) understanding middle powers' assessments of their own influence and concerns.
  • Middle powers should increase their foreign policy capabilities by bolstering their strategic autonomy, material power, and commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. Because their strategic autonomy is constrained by their alliance with a great power, their immediate focus should be on increasing their material and diplomatic power. Strategic autonomy from their great-power ally might be easier to attain if their military and diplomatic power increased sufficiently to be credible mediators between China and the United States.

This research was sponsored by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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