Australia and China’s relationship was frosty enough to begin with – and then former Prime Minister Tony Abbott entered the fray.
The former head of Australia added fuel to already-inflamed tensions between the two nations after his recent visit to Taiwan in a “private capacity”.
Despite attending as a “private citizen”, he was nonetheless granted a very formal reception, holding a meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen as well as Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.
Abbott was in Taiwan primarily to deliver a keynote address to the Yushan Forum, an Asian regional dialogue conference hosted by Taiwan that aims to enhance cooperation and deepen partnerships in the region.
Abbott used the speech to declare solidarity with Taiwan and accused China of being a “bully” who had no allies or friends, but only “clients who can’t wait to escape”.
“If the “drums of war” can be heard in our region, as an official of ours has noted, it’s not Australia that’s beating them,” Abbott said in Taipei last Friday.
“China is coming for Taiwan’s freedom, and the best way to avoid the war that no one wants is to be prepared to fight it.”
According to the former Prime Minister, China’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric and military moves of late have not succeeded in its efforts to coerce or control its neighbours, economic partners or rivals. In fact, it’s turned the world against it, pointing to the ‘Quad’ alliance recently formed between the US, India, Japan and Australia.
Read more: Quad leaders press for free Indo-Pacific
“Nothing is more pressing right now, than solidarity with Taiwan, if we want a better world,” Abbott said in the speech.
He also supported Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an economic agreement between 11 countries, including Australia, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam, widely viewed as a counterweight to China.
Meanwhile, China “could never be admitted to the TPP” so long as it “mistreats its own people, threatens its neighbours”, engages in a trade war with Australia, and “predatory trade all-round,” Abbott said.
First: A bit of background on what’s happening between China and Taiwan
Tensions between China and Taiwan have run higher than usual in the past week.
In 1949, the Republic of China party lost a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party's forces on the mainland. The government then relocated to what's now known as Taiwan.
While Taiwan is a 24-million strong democracy and views itself as a sovereign state, Beijing sees the island state as a breakaway province, and insists on the ‘One China policy’, China’s diplomatic recognition that there is only one sovereign state of China.
Since Xi Jinping came to power as president in 2013, China has been pushing to cement its role as a superpower on the world stage. While China has been flexing its military muscles for some time, relations with Taiwan have become particularly tense: a week ago, Beijing sent a record number of nearly 150 Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence zone. Taiwan officials urged Beijing to “immediately stop its non-peaceful and irresponsible provocative action,” the .
It has fallen on deaf ears, with Chinese President Xi Jinping vowing to “fulfil reunification” with Taiwan.
“Taiwan’s independence separatism is the biggest obstacle to achieving the reunification of the motherland, and the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation,” Xi said in a speech the day before Taiwan’s National Day.
“No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”
But in a speech the following day, Tsai said the democracy would not “bow to pressure” for reunification.
"Nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us," she said. "This is because the path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people."
Like many other countries, Australia does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but many Western nations have been allied in their concerns about growing pressure from China.
Taiwan speech provokes China’s fury
Abbott’s speech was instantly condemned by Chinese officials as well as state-owned media outlets, widely viewed as mouthpieces for the Chinese Community Party.
In a daily news briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the speech sent a “seriously wrong signal” and “severely violated the one-China principle”.
"Such remarks out of one's own political interests instigate confrontation, advocate the 'China threat' theory, violently interfere in China's internal affairs and wantonly smear and discredit China,” Zhao said.
“They are immoral, irresponsible and doomed to be unpopular.”
"We urge the individual concerned in Australia to abandon cold war thinking and ideological bias, respect basic facts, look at China and its development objectively and rationally, and stop making irresponsible remarks."
“His recent despicable and insane performance in Taiwan fully exposed his hideous anti-China features,” the statement read.
“This will only further discredit him.”
The editor-in-chief of Beijing’s The Global Times also railed against Abott, accusing him of asking Taiwan to “‘stand up and die’ for Western interests”.
“With politicians in Canberra continuing to act and sound increasingly hostile toward China, the worst is probably yet to come,” the editorial stated.
Beijing has all the military force necessary to force ‘reunification’ with Taiwan, the piece suggested.
“But Canberra should bear in mind that it is cutting off its nose to spite its face, as meddling in the Taiwan question is a dead end. Beijing has both the determination and capability to shore up the irreversible trend of national reunification.”