Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has raised fears that Beijing could “destroy catastrophically very quickly” amid growing tensions over Taiwan’s future – claiming the United States and Australia could not stand idle.
In a keynote address at a regional forum in Taipei on Friday, Abbott dismissed allegations that Australian officials were beating the “drums of war” while urging Beijing to “reduce aggression”.
At a later press conference, Abbott said he would return to Australia with a message to the government about the importance of doing “everything we can reasonably do to support Taiwan”, as it was “under great challenge from its giant neighbor”.
Abbott also described Taiwan as a “wonderful country” before addressing himself as a “wonderful place”. The wording is sensitive because Australia – like most nations – does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. He said, “It’s very easy to fall into these little traps, right?”
Abbott is visiting Taiwan as a private citizen, but the conservative former prime minister had an audience with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, on Thursday.
Abbott on Friday used an address to the Yushan Forum to accuse China of showing “growing war against Taiwan” – including through a recent increase in the intrusion of military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
“Recognizing that its relative power may have peaked, with the aging of the population, its economy slowing down and its economy squeaking, it is quite possible that Beijing could very quickly destroy catastrophically,” said Abbott, who was prime minister from 2013 to 2015.
“Our challenge is to try to ensure that the unthinkable remains unlikely; and that the possible does not become the probable. ”
Abbott said he did not believe the United States “could stand by” and see Taiwan being “swallowed up” by China. “I do not think Australia should be indifferent to the fate of a co-democracy for almost 25 million people,” he added.
Abbott – the prime minister who signed Australia’s free trade agreement with China in 2014 – said “a lot has changed” since then.
The Secretary of State for Home Affairs of Australia, Michael Pezzullo, drew criticism in April when he said that free nations “hear the blow of war again” and stood ready for the “curse of war”.
In Friday’s speech, Abbott said: “So if the ‘drums of war’ can be heard in our region, as one official has noted, it is not Australia that beats them. The only drums we beat are for justice and freedom – freedom for all people, in China and in Taiwan, to make their own decisions about their lives and their future. ”
Abbott said China had taken “a wrong turn”. Its actions were responsible, he said, for the renewed Quad grouping of the United States, Japan, India and Australia. “The more aggressive it gets, the more opponents find it.”
Abbott said he had hesitated to attend the same conference two years ago “because it does not provoke China,” but he cited a number of developments since then, including the narrowing of disagreements in Hong Kong and the “arming” of trade against Australia.
In an apparent reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Abbott said Beijing had “canceled popular personalities in favor of a cult of the Red Emperor”.
Abbott called on governments – including Australia – to welcome Taiwan in the trade agreement now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (CPTPP).
Abbott, who was appointed adviser to the UK Board of Trade last year, suggested that China’s own bid to join the CPTPP should be blocked while it was “engaged in a trade war with Australia and in predator trade”.
The former prime minister said China “would hardly succeed while abusing its own people and threatening its neighbors”. He ended his speech by urging the public to “remain free”.
At the later press conference, Abbott acknowledged that he had recently visited India as an Australian government trade envoy, but said he was “here as a citizen Abbott”.
He argued that Australia should “intensify” naval patrols in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait: “The best way to ensure that the conflict neither of us wants and would be a disaster for all [is avoided] is to let Beijing know that Taiwan has friends. ”
Abbott also told reporters that it was up to China to “fix” with Australia after Beijing took “gross violation of our completely innocent call for an impartial investigation into the Wuhan virus”.
The Australian government did not use the term Wuhan virus – a term preferred by some members of the former Trump administration.
“We have no inherent conflict with China, but there are many things where China is treating us extremely unfairly with great aggression, and it is really up to the Chinese to stop it,” Abbott said.
A spokesman for Abbott said his trip was “privately funded” and the Australian government did not receive a prior copy of his speech. “No advice was given or sought about the speech or the trip,” Abbott’s spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne reiterated that Abbott was traveling “in a private capacity”.
Payne previously said the government was committed to its one-China policy – but that did not stop Australia from strengthening ties with Taiwan, which she described as a “leading democracy” and a “critical partner”.
“We have been concerned about tensions across the Taiwan Strait that have intensified in recent months,” Payne told ABC on Thursday. “It is clear that conflict is of no interest here and we are concerned about increased air intrusions from China into Taiwan’s air defense zone over the past week.”
Comments have been sought from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.