Tony Abbott during his recent visit to Taipei (Image: Pool Photo via AP Photo, File)

The most interesting aspect of Tony Abbott’s remarks on Friday to a Taiwanese audience was right at the start.

“Two years back I hesitated to attend this conference lest that provoke China,” Abbott said, before going on to explain why Xi Jinping’s actions had prompted him to attend.

What he didn’t note was that his nemesis Malcolm Turnbull attended the same forum last year, apparently relaxed about “provoking China”. Of course, being in the middle of the pandemic, Turnbull’s attendance was virtual, and his speech was a little more coded than Abbott’s (not to mention much better). But Turnbull wasn’t particularly evasive in his references to China’s interference in Australia and his response (including the foreign influence laws), the need to ensure “we don’t move into a world where might is right”, and his conclusion “the rule of law and mutual respect are the keys and that’s why we must work together in the region as a mesh of countries with shared values to protect our sovereignty”.

Unlike Turnbull, Abbott did nothing to counter Chinese influence while prime minister — indeed, he enabled it with a free trade agreement and a promise (which Turnbull tried and failed to act on) — to establish an extradition agreement with the Beijing tyranny.

Abbott argued in defence of his actions on Friday, saying he was trying to encourage Beijing to integrate into a rules-based international order (the reality that “rules-based international order” applies to everyone but the United States is an argument for another day). “Much has changed in just six years,” he now admits.

Nonetheless, having overcome his concerns about affronting Beijing — where the threshold for taking umbrage is ever lower — Abbott was there in person in Taipei to say “Taiwan’s future should be decided by its own people; and to let Beijing know that any attempt at coercion would have incalculable consequences”, stressing that the US had recently reiterated its commitment to Taiwan and that “I don’t think Australia should be indifferent to the fate of a fellow democracy of almost 25 million people.” Should, not would, which would be something quite different.

“Nothing is more pressing right now, than solidarity with Taiwan,” Abbott said, a somewhat eccentric take on a world emerging from a pandemic. But by solidarity he meant, in particular, “welcoming Taiwan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership”.

Taiwan applied to join what is now call the CPTPP — the TPP without the US — a few days after China applied in September, echoing the process by which Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization the day after China in 2002 despite being far more WTO-compliant than China years earlier. Australia currently opposes China’s application to join the CPTPP on the basis of its ongoing trade war with us.

Critics label the government’s opposition a massive missed opportunity to restart relations with China — but at least the government knows from first-hand experience how dismissive Beijing can be of trade treaties, raising the question of what the benefit of allowing China to enter the agreement is at all.

Taiwan, on the other hand, a small, open economy with the rule of law and a well-functioning democracy, would be an ideal additional member state for a trade agreement struggling for relevance. Taiwan can be relied on to stick to its word in such agreements, unlike Beijing.

Maybe call it “practical solidarity”, in line with past Liberal rhetorical devices, but Abbott was doing God’s work in Taipei. In a purely private capacity, of course.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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