The former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has raised fears Beijing “could lash out disastrously very soon” amid growing tensions over the future of Taiwan – and argued the US and Australia could not stand idly by.
Delivering two high profile addresses to a regional forum in Taipei on Friday, Abbott dismissed claims that Australian officials were beating the “drums of war”, while calling on Beijing to “scale back the aggression”.
In a speech to dignitaries at a closing dinner event, Abbott laid out his predictions of China’s plans for Taiwan, suggesting an escalation into war could see the world divided into two camps – “democracies versus dictators”.
Conceding he was “no military planner”, Abbott said should China’s military not be able to provoke conflict through increasingly aggressive grey zone activities, he expected Beijing would blockade Taiwan.
“This would be the key moment for Taiwan’s friends,” he said. “Would they be prepared to run a Chinese blockade and would China be prepared to intercept ships and planes bound for Taiwan? My instinct is that China would be reluctant to do so but would instead challenge the US and its allies to keep Taiwan supplied indefinitely.” This could lead to global division, Abbott said.
He urged international governments to maintain their presence in the region and suggested he thought conflict was more imminent than many analysts believe.
“Ready or not China is coming for Taiwan’s freedom and the best way to avoid the war that no one wants is to be ready for it,” he said.
At an earlier press conference, Abbott said he would return to Australia with a message for the government about the importance of doing “everything we reasonably can to support Taiwan” as it was “under major challenge from its giant neighbour”.
Abbott also described Taiwan as a “wonderful country” before correcting himself to say a “wonderful place”. The phrasing is sensitive because Australia – like most nations – doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. He said: “It’s very easy to fall into these little traps, isn’t it?”
Abbott used an earlier address to the Yushan Forum on Friday to accuse China of displaying “growing belligerence to Taiwan” – including through a recent increase in incursions by military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence zone.
“Sensing that its relative power might have peaked, with its population ageing, its economy slowing, and its finances creaking, it’s quite possible that Beijing could lash out disastrously very soon,” 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 doesn’t become the probable.”
Abbott said he did not believe the US “could stand by” and watch Taiwan be “swallowed up” by China. “I don’t think Australia should be indifferent to the fate of a fellow democracy of almost 25 million people,” he added.
Abbott - the prime minister who signed Australia’s free trade agreement with China in 2014 – said “much has changed” since then.
The secretary of Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, attracted criticism in April when he said that free nations “again hear the beating drums” of war and were bracing for “the curse of war”.
In Friday’s speech, Abbott said: “So 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. 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 futures.”
Abbott said China had taken “a wrong turn”. Its actions were responsible, he said, for the reinvigorated Quad grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia. “The more aggressive it becomes, the more opponents it will find.”
Abbott said he had hesitated to attend the same conference two years ago “lest that provoke China” but he cited a range of developments since then, including the clampdown on dissent in Hong Kong and “weaponising” trade against Australia.
In an apparent reference to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, Abbott said Beijing had “cancelled popular personalities in favour of a cult of the red emperor”.
Abbott called on governments – including Australia’s – to welcome Taiwan into the trade deal now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Abbott, who was appointed last year as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade, suggested China’s own bid to join the CPTPP should be blocked while it was “engaged in a trade war with Australia, and in predatory trade all-round”.
The former prime minister said China could “hardly succeed while it mistreats its own people and threatens its neighbours”. He ended his speech by urging the audience to “stay free”.
At the press conference, Abbott acknowledged he had recently visited India as an Australian government trade envoy, but said he was “here as citizen Abbott”.
He argued 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 none of us want and would be a catastrophe for everyone [is avoided] is to let Beijing know that Taiwan has friends.”
Abbott also told reporters it was up to China to “make amends” with Australia after Beijing had taken “grievous offence at our perfectly innocent call for an impartial investigation into the Wuhan virus”.
The Australian government did not use the term Wuhan virus – a term favoured by some members of the former Trump administration.
“We have no intrinsic dispute with China, but there are a lot of things where China is treating us extremely unfairly with great aggression, and it’s really up to the Chinese to stop that,” Abbott said.
A spokesman for Abbott said his trip was “privately funded” and the Australian government was not given an advance copy of his speech. “No advice was given or sought regarding the speech or the trip,” Abbott’s spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, reiterated that Abbott travelled “in a private capacity”.
Payne said earlier that the government was committed to its one-China policy – but that did not prevent Australia from strengthening ties with Taiwan, which she described as a “leading democracy” and a “critical partner”.
“We have been concerned by tensions across the Taiwan Strait sharpening in recent months,” Payne told the ABC on Thursday. “It is clear that conflict is in no one’s interests here and we are concerned by increased air incursions by China into Taiwan’s air defence zone in the past week.”
Comment has been sought from the Chinese embassy in Canberra.