Remarks to the Yushan Forum - Taipei, Taiwan
Tony Abbott, former Prime minister, 8 October 2021
Two years back I hesitated to attend this conference lest that provoke China.
But since then, Beijing has torn-up the “one country, two systems” treaty on Hong Kong; put upwards of a million Uighurs into concentration camps; boosted cyber spying on its own citizens; cancelled popular personalities in favour of a cult of the new red emperor; brutalised Indian soldiers in the Himalayas; coerced other claimants in its eastern seas; and flown evermore intimidatory sorties against Taiwan.
It’s weaponised trade, especially against Australia, with our barley, wine and coal exports all stopped on spurious safety grounds, and its embassy has published 14 demands – essentially that we become a tributary state – that no self-respecting country could accept.
The trigger was politely seeking an impartial inquiry into the origins of the Wuhan virus.
So this year, I’m here, having concluded that China’s belligerence is all self-generated.
But things weren’t always this bad; and even now, need not go from bad to worse.
The Chinese economic miracle has lifted half a billion people from the third world to the middle class in scarcely a generation – probably the greatest and fastest advance in human well-being in all history – as Deng Xiaoping and his successors made room for the commercial instincts of the Chinese people.
The whole world has benefited from China’s productivity, including Australia, which supplied the iron ore, coal and gas to help make it happen.
My government finalised China’s first free trade deal with another G20 country, in part, because we thought that would help to build trust between China and the democracies.
As prime minister, I was prepared to join the Chinese-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank because I thought that would help to give China a stake in a rules-based global order.
For Beijing, surely there’s a lesson here: the more freedom its people have, the better they’ve done; and the more respect China has gained.
Be a friend, that experience shows, and you’ll have friends; be a bully, and you’ll only have clients, who can’t wait to escape.
Much has changed in just six years, but it’s not Australia’s goodwill towards the people of China, about a million of whom are now Australians and making a fine contribution to our country.
Australia has no issue with China. We welcome trade, investment and visits, just not further hectoring about being the chewing gum on China’s boot.
A fortnight back, Professor Victor Gao, a senior Beijing analyst and former translator for Deng Xiaoping, directly threatened Australians: “do you want to be a target for a possible nuclear war?” he said, in response to our decision to acquire nuclear powered (but not armed) submarines.
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.
But that’s not how China sees it, as its growing belligerence to Taiwan shows.
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.
Our challenge is to try to ensure that the unthinkable remains unlikely; and that the possible doesn’t become the probable.
That’s why Taiwan’s friends are so important now: to stress that Taiwan’s future should be decided by its own people; and to let Beijing know that any attempt at coercion would have incalculable consequences.
This is not the world’s only potential flashpoint: there’s Israel, never-not under existential threat; and the Ukraine, menaced by the new Tsar; but nowhere is the struggle between liberty and tyranny more stark than across the Taiwan Strait.
In seven decades, Taiwan has grown from an impoverished dictatorship to a prosperous democracy.
For a long time, in Taiwan, as in China, there was thought to be a trade-off between liberty and prosperity, with people having to sacrifice their freedom for their wealth.
For a long time, it was assumed that no dictatorship could evolve without mayhem.
Yet Taiwan proves that authoritarian governments can liberalise; and do so without sacrificing prosperity or unleashing anarchy.
Economic growth since 1990 has averaged 5 per cent; and Taiwanese are now the 15th richest people in the world in purchasing power terms.
This is simply a stellar performance: prosperity plus freedom, a model that the whole world should admire, not isolate.
It’s to the vast credit of successive Taiwanese leaders that power was steadily dispersed, in a peaceful, orderly way; and to the credit of the Taiwanese people that they’ve used their freedoms responsibly to build an even richer, stronger island.
As things stand, how could Taiwanese people ever want to exchange their current lives for an alternative that’s poorer and less free?
Why would they want to get caught up in the old arguments about who is the “real” China?
Especially as China, meanwhile, has taken a wrong turn.
Maybe the Deng-era market freedom, was a short-term device to strengthen the country; a tactic, like “hide and bide”.
But China’s leaders should have thought more deeply about this, because dropping the ruse, has just united others against them.
It’s Beijing that’s created the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – linking the United States, Japan, India and Australia – because it’s been so unreasonable; and the more aggressive it becomes, the more opponents it will find.
At our recent ministerial summit, both Australia and the United States “stated their intent to strengthen ties with Taiwan” which we both declared “is a leading democracy and critical partner for both countries”.
The State Department has just affirmed that the US commitment to Taiwan is “rock solid”.
I don’t think America could stand by and watch Taiwan swallowed up.
I don’t think Australia should be indifferent to the fate of a fellow democracy of almost 25 million people.
The US Secretary of State put it well, earlier, when he said of China: that America would be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.
Provided it’s real, collaboration is still possible and trust could yet be rebuilt.
But Taiwan will be the test.
For the democratic world, that means a readiness to support this fellow democracy, including by welcoming Taiwan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership
And for China too, which can hardly succeed while it mistreats its own people and threatens its neighbours, that means scaling back the aggression, as it could never be admitted to the TPP while engaged in a trade war with Australia, and in predatory trade all-round.
Nothing is more pressing right now, than solidarity with Taiwan, if we want a better world; hence my enthusiastic presence here today, to stand with this island that’s brave and free.
I won’t end urging you to stay safe. Rather something nobler and higher; stay free.