The Taiwan Flashpoint and Asia’s Middle Powers
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Roundtable in Asia Policy 19.2

The Taiwan Flashpoint and Asia’s Middle Powers

Roundtable with Brendan Taylor, Jade Guan, Michito Tsuruoka, Peter K. Lee, Peter J. Dean, Benjamin Ho, Hanh Nguyen, Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, Alex Bristow, and Catherine Jones
April 27, 2024

What role, if any, could Asia’s so-called middle powers can play in response to growing tensions across the Taiwan Strait? This roundtable examines the strategies and approaches these states are adopting as the likelihood of major conflict over this enduring flashpoint intensifies.


Brendan Taylor and Jade Guan

Preparing for a Taiwan Contingency: Lessons for Japan from the War in Ukraine

Michito Tsuruoka

South Korean Entanglement in a Taiwan Contingency

Peter K. Lee

Australia’s “Taiwan Problem”: Middle-Power Agency and the Self-Centeredness of the Australian National Debate

Peter Dean

Cross-Strait Tensions and Southeast Asia’s Middle Powers: A Singaporean Perspective

Benjamin Ho

Vietnam in a Taiwan Contingency: Facing Multiple Crises

Hanh Nguyen

The Philippine Presidency and Middle-Power Agency

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby

UK Agency on the Issue of Taiwan

Alex Bristow and Catherine Jones


Brendan Taylor and Jade Guan

This roundtable considers what role, if any, Asia’s so-called middle powers can play in response to growing tensions across the Taiwan Strait.[1] What strategies and approaches are this category of states adopting as the likelihood of major conflict over this enduring flashpoint intensifies? How do Asia’s middle powers view the costs and risks of conflict over Taiwan, and what key factors inform their assessments? To what extent do their respective approaches exhibit commonalities and potential complementarities, and to what extent are they distinct or even completely divergent? Perhaps most importantly, do this region’s middle powers—either individually or in concert—have the agency to shape the course of the Taiwan flashpoint? Or are they merely pawns in a larger geopolitical game? Even if the latter is true, what strategic choices might they make, especially in the event of conflict, and with what consequences?

Much ink has already been spilled over this flashpoint in recent years as tensions have intensified. The bulk of this work has centered on the three key players in this unfolding drama—China, Taiwan, and the United States—focusing primarily on Beijing’s coercive tactics targeting the island, Taiwan’s shifting identity politics, and an increasingly fractious Sino-U.S. relationship.[2] Some assessments have analyzed Japan-Taiwan security ties and Tokyo’s likely responses in the event of a Taiwan conflict, but these have not considered Japan’s role explicitly through a middle-power lens.[3] Indeed, only a small handful of studies have considered the role that individual Asian middle powers might play—namely Australia or South Korea—either in advance or in the event of conflict over Taiwan.[4] This is notwithstanding the significant stakes involved for these countries and the world. For instance, as modeling published by Bloomberg in January 2024 estimates, a war over Taiwan could cost an estimated $10 trillion, or 10% of global GDP, making the global financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine each appear pale by comparison.[5]

It is often assumed that middle powers can exert little, if any, influence over the course of this flashpoint and the growing likelihood of catastrophic conflict. A large part of the reason for that pessimism relates to the reduced freedom for maneuver that middle powers are thought to have as a result of structural constraints caused by great-power competition. As the Canadian academic Brian Job has observed:

    Certain structural prerequisites are necessary for middle-power diplomacy to flourish. These have been evident in the two waves of middle-power activism since the end of WWII, first in the establishment of the UN and Bretton Woods systems and subsequently in the aftermath of the Cold War. Both have been characterized as relatively benign strategic environments with either mutually accepted boundaries on the direct, strategic competition among major powers, during what [John Lewis] Gaddis termed the “long peace” of the Cold War or during the 1990s with the dominance of the U.S. as a hegemonic power of global and regional security orders. In each, the middle powers shared with the U.S. a prevailing “embedded liberal” consensus on the norms and values underlying the political, economic, and security order. Multilateral and bilateral institutions facilitated the hegemonic provision of global public goods through a “rules-based order.” In these historically contingent periods, there were space and opportunity for middle-power activism.[6]

In contemporary Asia, whatever autonomy or agency middle powers have at their disposal tends to be viewed primarily in terms of their capacity to navigate a course between the great powers—specifically the United States and China—that avoids needing to make “invidious choices” between the two.[7] Little consideration has thus far been given to the possibility that Asia’s middle powers could potentially influence the Taiwan flashpoint in an active and constructive sense rather than as passive observers to an unfolding Asian tragedy. Instead, scholars of Asian security are even beginning to question the very utility of the middle-power concept, with some calling for its abandonment on the grounds that it is ill-suited to this new era of great-power strategic rivalry.[8]

Curiously, however, such skepticism stands in contrast to the continued insistence on the part of policymakers that middle powers have a valuable and, indeed, indispensable role to play in steering Asia away from catastrophic conflict. As Anthony Albanese, prime minister of Australia, a quintessential middle power, observed during his keynote address to the June 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore:

    Australia is engaged not as a spectator or a commentator, not calling for others to act while we stand and watch, not urging nations down a path we are not prepared to walk ourselves. Australia is engaged as a champion for peace and prosperity in the region and the world, and as a contributor to the solutions to the challenges that all of us will face in the years ahead. [We are] investing in our capability and investing in our relationships, working to shape the future, not waiting for the future to shape us.[9]

This roundtable interrogates that apparent disparity between the so-called two worlds of international relations—the scholarly and the policy worlds—through better illuminating what Asia’s middle powers might do, and are already doing, in relation to the region’s most dangerous flashpoint.

Before proceeding, several definitional and methodological clarifications are necessary. The middle-power concept remains a contested one, and this roundtable does not propose to resolve this long-standing debate. Instead, it embraces what the Australian academic Andrew Carr has characterized as a “position approach” to the dilemmas associated with defining the middle-power concept. As Carr explains, “position definitions of middle powers focus on quantifiable factors, such as gross domestic product (GDP), population, military size and defence spending, to develop an ‘objective’ ranking of state size.”[10] To operationalize this position approach, the middle powers selected for the roundtable were derived from the Lowy Institute’s reputable Asia Power Index. Six out of the seven countries covered in this roundtable—Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam—are classified as middle powers in the latest Asia Power Index based on eight measures of national power that collectively constitute a country’s “comprehensive power.”[11] While not included in the index, the United Kingdom is added here as a seventh country study—both to reflect its deepening regional engagement and to enhance the generalizability of the roundtable’s findings. While the UK may be regarded as a major or even a great power in certain contexts, for reasons detailed further in that essay, its level of agency is most akin to that of a middle power when considered in an Asian strategic setting.

While comparable in terms of national power, the seven countries exhibit divergences in other areas that add further to the value of this comparative assessment. For instance, the sample includes a reasonable geographic spread, including three Southeast Asian, two Northeast Asian, one Oceanic, and one extraregional middle power. Likewise, the middle powers selected display variation in terms of their alignment status. Three (Australia, Japan, and the UK) are among the United States’ closest allies; two (South Korea and the Philippines) are formal U.S. allies that at times have sought considerable strategic autonomy from the United States but are currently experiencing more intimate ties with Washington; and the remaining two (Singapore and Vietnam) are U.S. strategic partners that resolutely eschew any formal allied status.

Essays in This Roundtable

The roundtable begins with Michito Tsuruoka’s essay on Japan, a country where the implications of a Taiwan contingency are being discussed with increasing frequency and freedom. As Tsuruoka explains, this marks a significant departure from Tokyo’s traditionally more circumspect approach. He outlines the reasons for this shift before focusing on what lessons the ongoing conflict in Ukraine might offer for Japan (and other Asian middle powers) in relation to a potential Taiwan contingency. Three such lessons are identified: first, the prime importance of robust deterrence strategies to prevent conflict; second, the uses and limitations of economic sanctions both in advance of and in the event of a conflict; and third, the challenges of countering nuclear-armed adversaries. Tsuruoka concludes that Japan is able to contribute directly toward addressing some of these challenges, particularly the first, through continuing to augment its own military capabilities. However, he also acknowledges that limits remain as to what Tokyo could accomplish, particularly in terms of influencing the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal and the future trajectory of Sino-U.S. relations. Indeed, Tsuruoka observes that these limits to influence are a dilemma facing all of Asia’s middle powers.

The next essay, by Peter Lee, critiques the long-held assumption that South Korea could abstain militarily from a U.S.-China cross-strait conflict because Seoul would need to focus its energies solely on deterring and, if required, responding to opportunistic North Korean adventurism. Lee argues that the growing likelihood of both horizontal and vertical escalation—particularly in the event of protracted hostilities over Taiwan—is forcing a rethink of this assumption, as reflected in the growing willingness of South Korean leaders to more publicly support preservation of the cross-strait status quo. Yet while South Korea’s ability to remain out of the fray looks increasingly untenable, Lee also contends that Seoul’s agency in the event of conflict may too have been underestimated. He canvasses five options—total neutrality, partial neutrality, partial involvement, direct intervention, and horizontal counterescalation—that could conceivably be at Seoul’s disposal in the event of a Taiwan conflict. Lee concludes that Seoul’s choices here could ultimately have significant ramifications for the future of the United States’ Asian presence and the region’s strategic order.

Continuing the theme of regional order, Peter Dean asserts that Australia’s national debate is out of sync with the demands of Asia’s new strategic dynamics and is inhibiting Canberra’s agency vis-à-vis the Taiwan flashpoint. The long-running debate over whether Australia would support the United States in a Taiwan conflict, Dean argues, has become unduly narrow and outdated. His essay suggests that maintaining the balance of power needed for regional peace and prosperity requires Canberra to think beyond its important alliance with the United States and to contemplate also working more closely with other middle powers on Taiwan, including Japan, South Korea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Dean concludes that political leadership will be required both to mend Australia’s broken public discourse and to facilitate the difficult regional conversations that working on the Taiwan issue may involve.

The next three essays focus on Southeast Asia’s middle powers, many of which are becoming more concerned about the prospects for major-power conflict over Taiwan. As Benjamin Ho observes in the first of these contributions, increased Southeast Asian interest in the flashpoint is occurring at the same time as Taipei is also ostensibly looking to forge closer ties with this subregion as part of its strategy for reducing its dependence on mainland China. Notwithstanding the fact that Taiwan and Southeast Asia are looming increasingly larger on one another’s strategic radar, however, Ho contends that the divide between them remains substantial. Rather than seeking to close this gap by attempting to co-opt Southeast Asian governments onto the U.S. side in a new cold war against China, he makes the case that Washington could more productively highlight the importance of the Taiwan issue to the so-called international rules-based order that middle powers, such as Singapore, ultimately rely on for their much-treasured autonomy. Ho argues that the United States, by doing so, stands its best chance of encouraging Southeast Asia’s middle powers to exercise any agency they do possess vis-à-vis the Taiwan flashpoint.

Hanh Nguyen analyzes the view from Hanoi. She begins by observing that Vietnam and Taiwan enjoy robust economic and people-to-people relations, notwithstanding their lack of formal diplomatic ties and Hanoi’s public adherence to Beijing’s “one China” principle. Due to their closeness, however, Nguyen argues that a major-power conflict over Taiwan would generate multiple crises for Vietnam, including the evacuation of its estimated 400,000 citizens currently residing in Taiwan, trade and economic disruption, and horizontal escalation of the conflict into the South China Sea. These developments would, in turn, create a potent mix of domestic and external pressures for Hanoi. While a reluctance to publicly diverge too far from Beijing and the management of all-consuming domestic pressures suggest that Hanoi would be unlikely to adopt a robust stance in the event of a Taiwan conflict, Nguyen maintains that such a response would ultimately damage Vietnam’s credentials as an emerging Asian middle power. Even more significantly, she contends, given the stakes involved, such a conflagration would also likely undermine the underpinnings of Hanoi’s omnidirectional foreign policy in a manner not dissimilar to that which occurred following the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby considers the case of the Philippines, which, for reasons of geographic proximity and material weight, has clear potential to play a middle-power role in a Taiwan contingency. Importantly, however, she argues that Manila has yet to articulate a coherent vision for the country’s middle-power status and that its propensity to do so remains heavily contingent on whoever is in power. Using the previous Duterte and the incumbent Marcos administrations as comparative case studies, Misalucha-Willoughby demonstrates that each government has responded quite differently to the highly complex and multifaceted menu of security challenges confronting the Philippines. While the Taiwan flashpoint is certainly a priority and, indeed, is arguably ascending the list of challenges, she shows that from Manila’s perspective it remains a distant third relative to the conundrums posed by deepening U.S.-China competition and Beijing’s coercive moves in the South China Sea. That said, she also highlights that there are lessons from Manila’s current responses to the South China Sea disputes, in particular, that are potentially applicable to the Taiwan flashpoint and to the prospective approaches of Asia’s other middle powers toward it.

In the roundtable’s final essay, Alex Bristow and Catherine Jones observe that the role of the United Kingdom in relation to the Taiwan flashpoint is often underappreciated, particularly at a time when the UK is devoting more attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific. They begin by considering the current trajectory of UK policy toward Taiwan and China, before contemplating the diplomatic, economic, and military choices that would likely confront UK decision-makers in the event of a major crisis or conflict. They contend that the UK, despite being geographically distant, could still exercise a level of agency commensurate with that of an Asian middle power, particularly via its extensive bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral networks that it could draw on in the event of a crisis. Like other middle powers, Bristow and Jones note that the UK could not act alone and would confront considerable economic challenges in the event of a full-blown crisis or conflict. That said, they argue that the UK still retains the capacity to play a meaningful role in deterring, managing, or responding to a Taiwan crisis. Drawing on its diplomatic tools and middle-power status, the UK could do so most effectively by improving regional resilience and scenario planning in anticipation of a Taiwan crisis, while simultaneously fostering cooperation on issues of global concern that extend beyond the Taiwan imbroglio, especially in the areas of climate, trade, and health.

Common Themes

Despite the clear differences and areas of divergence between the seven middle powers considered in this roundtable, at least three cross-cutting themes emerge. First, where Asia’s middle powers have traditionally tended to absent themselves or, at the very least, sought to preserve the option of remaining neutral in the event of a Taiwan conflict, there is growing recognition that such postures may no longer be viable. For reasons of geographic proximity and economic interconnectedness, Asia’s middle powers realize that a major crisis or conflict over Taiwan will affect them directly and possibly even existentially. One often underappreciated consideration here is the relatively large number of foreign nationals living in Taiwan, the fate of whom would present significant dilemmas for a number of Asia’s middle powers in the event of conflict—especially Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, as well as Japan. In a worst-case scenario, Asia’s middle powers are also increasingly concerned that a major conflict over Taiwan is unlikely to remain confined to that particular theater. Instead, the potential for hostilities to escalate both horizontally (into other areas such as the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula) or vertically (possibly even across the nuclear threshold) is such that they can no longer play the role of innocent or largely disinterested bystanders.

Second, the contributions to this roundtable also show that the potential for middle powers to exercise agency beyond simply avoiding “invidious choices” between the United States and China is significantly greater than is often assumed. Some essays highlight the potential for Asia’s middle powers to contribute meaningfully to the deterrence of conflict. Others demonstrate the diplomatic contributions that this category of countries can make toward potentially avoiding conflict, whether through utilizing their considerable institutional networks or by playing the “honest broker” role that has traditionally been regarded as such an important middle-power function. Should diplomacy falter and conflict eventuate, the potential for Asia’s middle powers to shape the course of hostilities and possibly even determine the shape of the region’s resultant strategic order is also highlighted.

Third, the limits to middle-power agency vis-à-vis the Taiwan flashpoint are also well documented and understood in the essays that follow. These limits are understandably a function of the smaller size of Asia’s middle powers relative to the region’s bigger players—namely the United States and China. They derive in part from the close yet constraining economic ties that most of these states have with China and the equally inhibiting security bonds that many of them share with the United States. The essays also illuminate the extent to which domestic political pressures will likely limit the freedom of maneuver for Asia’s middle powers in the event of a major crisis or conflict over Taiwan. One interesting, and perhaps surprising, omission was the minimal attention given to the possibilities for closer coordination between Asia’s middle powers themselves, particularly in terms of trying to avoid a conflict. The reasons for this absence are an area worthy of further exploration.

In the final analysis, in a period where tensions over Taiwan might further intensify, particularly following the January 2024 election of the independence-leaning Lai Ching-te as Taiwan’s next president, middle-power interest in and engagement with this flashpoint could well increase. The contributions to this roundtable serve as a guide for both anticipating how this process is likely to unfold and assessing how it can most productively be managed.

Brendan Taylor is Professor of Strategic Studies and Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University (Australia).

Jade Guan is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics and Strategy at Deakin University (Australia).

Michito Tsuruoka is an Associate Professor at Keio University and Deputy Director of the Keio Center for Strategy (Japan). At the time of this writing, he was a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Peter K. Lee is a Research Fellow in the Center for Regional Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (South Korea). He is also a Nonresident Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Peter Dean is a Professor in the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney (Australia), where he is Director of the Foreign Policy and Defence Programme.

Benjamin Ho is an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore).

Hanh Nguyen is a PhD student with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University (Australia). She is currently a Research Fellow at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and is a former nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum.

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Studies at De La Salle University (Philippines). She also holds fellowships at Carnegie China and Agora Strategy.

Alex Bristow is Deputy Director of the Defence, Strategy and National Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Australia).

Catherine Jones is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews (United Kingdom).


[1] We would like to acknowledge that the ideas in this roundtable were presented at a workshop at the Australian National University in July 2023. This activity was supported by the Australian government through a grant from the Australian Department of Defence. The views expressed in the roundtable are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian government or the Australian Department of Defence.

[2] See, for example, Bonnie S. Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss, and Thomas J. Christensen, “Taiwan and the True Sources of Deterrence,” Foreign Affairs, November 23, 2023, 88–100.

[3] See, for example, William Choong, “Japan’s Intervention in a Taiwan Contingency: It Depends,” Diplomat, November 24, 2023,; and Mike Mochizuki, “Tokyo’s Taiwan Conundrum: What Can Japan Do to Prevent War?” Washington Quarterly 45, no. 3 (2022): 81–107.

[4] Oriana Skylar Mastro and Sungmin Cho, “How South Korea Can Contribute to the Defense of Taiwan,” Washington Quarterly 45, no. 3 (2022): 109–29; and Brendan Taylor, “Taiwan Flashpoint: What Australia Can Do to Stop the Coming Taiwan Crisis,” Lowy Institute, Policy Brief, February 26, 2020,

[5] Jennifer Welch et al., “Xi, Biden and the $10 Trillion Cost of War over Taiwan,” Bloomberg, January 8, 2024,

[6] Brian L. Job, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Dilemmas of Middle Powers,” in “The Asia-Pacific Middle Powers’ Strategic Options in the Era of China-U.S. Rivalry,” ed. Chiung-chiu Huang and Chien-wen Kou, special issue, Issues and Studies 56, no. 2 (2020): 4.

[7] Lee Hsien Loong, “The Endangered Asian Century: America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020, See also, for example, Hoo Tiang Boon and Sarah Teo, “Caught in the Middle? Middle Powers amid U.S.-China Competition,” in “Caught in the Middle? Middle Powers amid U.S.-China Competition,” ed. Hoo Tiang Boon and Sarah Teo, special issue, Asia Policy 17, no. 4 (2022): 59–76.

[8] See, for example, Jeffrey Robertson and Andrew Carr, “Is Anyone a Middle Power? The Case for Historicization,” International Theory 15, no. 3 (2023): 379–403.

[9] Anthony Albanese, “Keynote Address” (speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, 20th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, June 2, 2023),

[10] Andrew Carr, “Is Australia a Middle Power? A Systemic Impact Approach,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 68, no. 1 (2014): 71–72.

[11] Susannah Patton, Jack Sato, and Hervé Lemahieu, Lowy Institute Asia Power Index: 2023 Key Findings Report (Sydney: Lowy Institute, 2023),

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