TAIPEI – A former Australian prime minister accused China of being a bully and expressed enthusiastic support for Taiwan while visiting the democratically ruled island on Friday.
“Nothing is more pressing right now than solidarity with Taiwan,” former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said at a conference.
China’s government has been seeking to isolate Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory. It has stepped up military harassment of the island by flying fighter jets toward Taiwan, with a particularly large number of flights this past week.
Abbott’s comments were at a conference organized by a think tank backed by Taiwan's government. The Australian government has said his visit to Taiwan is unofficial.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen launched the forum with a more restrained speech, omitting any direct mention of China.
She said “Taiwan is fully committed to collaborating with regional players to prevent armed conflict in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait.”
Abbott said that two years ago, he hesitated to attend the meeting, called the Yushan Forum, for fear of provoking Beijing.
China until recently was Australia’s biggest export market for coal and other commodities.
Things have changed since then, he said, with Beijing tightening controls over Hong Kong and “weaponizing” trade against Australia.
Beijing has imposed official and unofficial trade barriers against Australian products including wine, coal and barley following Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, essentially shutting down imports of these products.
Abbott said the Chinese Embassy in Australia had issued a list of demands that essentially ordered that “we become a tributary state.”
“Be a friend, and you’ll have friends, be a bully and you’ll only have clients who can’t wait to escape,” Abbott said.
He added, though, that “collaboration is still possible, and trust could yet be rebuilt.”
Abbott represented Australia this year as a special trade envoy for India. He angered Beijing in August when he described a potential Australia-India free trade agreement as a signal of the “democratic world’s tilt away China.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday that Abbott had flown to Taiwan as a private citizen and took no message from the current government. However, the government granted him an exemption to a pandemic travel ban that keeps most Australians at home.
Abbott was also accompanied at engagements by Australia’s top diplomat in Taiwan, Jenny Bloomfield, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
He hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Australia in 2014 and was the government leader when a free trade deal was finalized with China. The deal took effect in 2015 after Abbott was replaced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who addressed the same Taiwan forum online last year.
Abbott said the most important thing is to ensure Taiwan’s self-determination. Chinese leaders have said they are determined to unite the island and the mainland, by force if necessary.
He praised Taiwan's transition to democracy and its economic growth, and said Australia should not be “indifferent” if Taiwan were threatened.
Abbott’s trip coincides with a visit by a group of four French senators as part of a parliamentarian exchange with the island, who also praised the island’s democracy and commented on the importance of stability in the region.
Alain Richard, the senator who led the visit, said France is committed to maintaining "stability, open communications, free navigation” in the Indo-Pacific region.
The senators' visit faced Chinese pressure as well.
Asked about recent Chinese pressure and flights by fighter jets toward Taiwan, Richard said these were “messages of threats" that both Taiwan and the “powers committed to stability" in the region understood clearly.
Abbott called on other countries in the world to support Taiwan in the face of such threats.
“Our challenge is to try and ensure that the unthinkable remains unlikely and that the possible does not become the probable,” Abbott said.
“That’s why Taiwan’s friends are so important now, to stress that Taiwan’s future should be decided by its own people and to let Beijing know any attempt at coercion would have incalculable consequences.”
Associated Press videojournalist Taijing Wu contributed to this report.