TAIPEI, Taiwan —
A former Australian prime minister has accused China of being a bully and expressed enthusiastic support for Taiwan while visiting the democratically ruled island.
“Nothing is more pressing right now than solidarity with Taiwan,” former Prime Minister Tony Abbott told a conference Friday in Taiwan.
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 towards Taiwan, with a particularly large demonstration of force starting last Friday and continuing into this week.
Abbott’s comments were to a conference organized by a think-tank backed by the Taiwan government. The Australian government has said his visit to Taiwan is unofficial.
Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen launched the forum with a more restrained speech, omitting any direct mention of China.
She did not mention China, but rather 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 market for exports of 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 exports including Australian wine, coal, and barley following Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus which was first reported in Wuhan in December 2019, essentially shutting down imports of these products.
Abbott said the Chinese Embassy in Australia had issued a list of demands that essentially demanded “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 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.
“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.”
Abbott is the first of three prime ministers who have led Australia’s conservative coalition government since it was first elected in 2013.
He hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Australia in 2014 and was the government leader when a bilateral 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 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.”
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 make the journey from 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, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
Some unnamed Australian government ministers questioned whether the visit was necessary during a time of heightened tensions with China, ABC reported.