Tony Abbott arrives in Taiwan to address regional forum amid rising tensions with China

The former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has arrived in Taiwan to speak at a regional forum as tensions with China escalate following recent air incursions.

Abbott is in Taiwan to deliver a keynote speech at the Yushan forum – an Asian regional dialogue conference organised by the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.

A spokesperson for the former federal Liberal leader confirmed Abbott was scheduled to address the forum on Friday morning.

The Australian government said Abbott was travelling to Taiwan in a private capacity.

He will be received by Taiwan’s most senior figures including the president, Tsai Ing-wen, the foreign minister, Joseph Wu, and the secretary general of the national security council.

Abbott arrived on a flight from Singapore on Tuesday and was greeted at Taoyuan airport by Taiwan’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Tien Chung-kwang. Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs said it “warmly welcomed” Abbott who had been invited to deliver the speech. Another former Australian prime minister Malcom Turnbull spoke at the same forum in 2020.

Abbott’s spokesperson said the former prime minister would comply with all quarantine requirements on his return to Australia. Taiwan currently mandates 14 days in hotel isolation for the vast majority of arrivals, but the ministry of foreign affairs said it had closely coordinated with health authorities to implement a “diplomatic bubble”.

Abbott was recently fined by Australian police for breaching health orders by not wearing a mask in Sydney during the city’s ongoing lockdown.

The arrival of a former head of government in Taiwan and Abbott’s meetings with Taiwan’s leaders come at a sensitive time. Cross-strait tensions between Taiwan and China are at their highest in decades with China sending record numbers of warplanes into the island’s air defence zone over the past few days.

The sorties were described as “threatening” and “over the top” by Taiwan’s leaders and drew sharp rebuke from governments including the US, the UK, Japan and Australia.

Abbott last week spoke in support of Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The 11-member trade group is assessing applications from both China and Taiwan. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as a province of China, is resolutely opposed to Taiwan’s inclusion in any multilateral bodies and is hypersensitive to any act by a foreign government suggesting support for Taiwanese sovereignty.

Abbott told an Australian parliamentary inquiry into expanding membership of the trade pact that Australia should not allow a fear of inflaming tensions with China to get in the way of accepting Taiwan’s bid and that he was “strongly in favour” of Taiwan’s inclusion.

“The only argument [against] that occurs to me is that it might upset China,” Abbott said. “But given that China is not a member of the TPP, is unlikely to become a member of the TPP, and is already in a state of high dudgeon against Australia and many other countries, I don’t see that China is going to be any more upset than it already is.”

Abbott told a thinktank in London in July that China was “asserting itself aggressively in what’s at best a cold peace, and more likely, a new Cold War”. He has also described China’s behaviour under Xi Jinping as a “hell of a wake-up call” for Australia, which has suffered a series of trade actions rolled out by Beijing since last year.

Abbott was prime minister from 2013 to 2015. He left parliament in 2019 and was named an unpaid adviser to the British government’s Board of Trade in 2020. He travelled to India in early August as a special envoy for the Australian government to push for closer trade links.

Since last year, Abbott has been listed on the Australian government’s foreign influence register for his adviser role, which is described as being “to advocate for free and fair trade especially trade with the UK and its allies”.

A spokesman for the trade board said Abbott’s Taiwan trip was not related to his role as an adviser.

– Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin

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