Tony Abbott appears in Taiwan as China tensions flare


Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has appeared in Taiwan in the face of growing tensions with China as it threatens “war is real”.

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has appeared in Taiwan to “break bread” in the face of growing tensions with China as it threatens “war is real”.

Mr Abbott, who stressed he was on the island nation in a private capacity and not representing the Australian government, still appeared alongside Taiwan’s leader after flying in on October 5.

He was flanked by Australia’s most senior official on the island, Jenny Bloomfield.

It is the first time a former Australian Prime Minister has met a sitting Taiwanese leader.

Mr Abbott appeared at a press conference alongside President Tsai Ing-wen at her office in Taipei on Thursday as the pair discussed Covid-19, economic partnerships and the ever-growing threat of China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory.

Taiwan disputes this, but Beijing tries to keep the island isolated on the world stage and baulks at the use of the name Taiwan or any reference to it as a country.

It has ramped up pressure on Ms Tsai’s government since her 2016 election win and has aggressively tried to dissuade politicians from visiting in recent years.

President Xi Jinping has described the seizure of Taiwan as “inevitable” and in the last week alone, Beijing has sent a record number of military aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace. Nearly 150 warplanes had breached Taiwan’s ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone) since Friday.

In an article published on Tuesday, President Tsai warned of “catastrophic consequences” if the island were to fall to China and vowed to “do whatever it takes” to guard against threats.

“They should remember that if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system,” she said.

“It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”

Ms Tsai said Taiwan and Australia “have long been important partners”, noting Taiwan-Australia trade had grown steadily at 10 per cent annually over the past five years.

Mr Abbott is sure to inflame the Chinese after describing Taiwan as a country and not a province, hailing Beijing its “giant neighbour”.

“It is in large measure to try to help to end this isolation from which Taiwan has been suffering for so many decades that I am here in this country and I do hope that this will be the first of many visits,” he said.

“If I may say so, perhaps in recent times, countries like Australia have over emphasised fostering democracy in places where it has never taken root and under emphasised protecting democracy in places where it has.

“Of course not everyone and not everywhere is pleased at Taiwan’s progress, and I do note that Taiwan is challenged on an almost daily basis by its giant neighbour,” he said.

“It’s more important than ever, under such circumstances, that your fellow democracies stand shoulder to shoulder with you.”

“The best thing that countries like Australia can do for Taiwan is to try to build an ever deeper relationship across the board, but particularly in trade,” he said.

“I can’t think of a stronger signal of democracies standing shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan than Taiwan’s accession to the Trans Pacific Partnership.

“Obviously I can’t make specific commitments on behalf of the Australian government, but I am confident that I do speak for the entire Australian people when I say as a country we wish the people of Taiwan to continue to flourish in peace and in freedom.”

Australia has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan but has been vocal in its support, alongside the United States.

“This is the first time a former Australian Prime Minister has met a sitting Taiwanese leader, which reflects the formal tone of the welcome he’s been given,” the ABC’s China correspondent Bill Birtles noted.

He noted: “President Tsai thanked Tony Abbott for voicing support for Taiwan to join the CPTPP and also for Aus to sign an economic pact directly with Taipei.”

Asked on Thursday about Mr Abbott’s trip the Prime Minister stressed he was in the Taiwan “as a private citizen”.

“I didn’t have any conversation with him before that. Tony has served as my envoy to India, and so when he went to India, we obviously spoke. But Tony is there as a private citizen. So what he said and what messages he passed on, he passed on in that capacity.”

Meanwhile Foreign Minister Marise Payne told ABC’s Radio National Drive that Australia was committed to a “one China policy” but raised concerns over the increased activities near the island nation.

“We have been concerned by tensions sharpening in recent months, it’s clear that conflict is in no one’s interest here and we are concerned by increased air incursions in the past week,” she said.

Her message to Beijing was to address issues “peacefully, through dialogue and not with the threat or use of force or coercion”.

Mr Abbott’s appearance is a far cry from 2014, when the then-Prime Minister hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping during his last visit to Australia; a visit Mr Abbott described as “a remarkable few days for the life of our country”.

In fact the visit was so successful, in a farewell speech to President Xi, Mr Abbott boldly claimed: “Today Team China is here to meet with Team Australia.”

In his closing, Mr Abbott said he is “looking forward to my next trip to Taiwan — a trip where I’m sure it will be possible to enjoy the bounty of this wonderful place … where, please God, we won’t be required to wear these wretched masks any more.”

— with AFP

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