China’s embassy in Canberra has denounced the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott for what it called a “despicable and insane performance in Taiwan”.
On a visit to Taipei to address a regional forum last week, Abbott raised concerns that 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.
The Chinese embassy posted a brief statement on its website late on Saturday describing Abbott as “a failed and pitiful politician”.
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“His recent despicable and insane performance in Taiwan fully exposed his hideous anti-China features,” an unnamed embassy spokesperson said.
“This will only further discredit him.”
Abbott, who arrived in Taiwan on Wednesday, maintained that he was visiting as a private citizen, not as a representative of the Australian government.
Abbott met with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, on Thursday and told her that he hoped his visit to the democratically ruled island would help end its isolation from the international community.
Abbott delivered a keynote address to the Yushan Forum on Friday morning in which he accused China of displaying “growing belligerence to Taiwan” – including through a recent increase in incursions by military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence zone.
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”.
At a press conference later on Friday, 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?”
Then, in a speech to dignitaries at a closing dinner event on Friday, Abbott said China was “coming for Taiwan’s freedom” and said “the best way to avoid the war that no one wants is to be ready for it”.
Beijing regards democratically run Taiwan as its breakaway province. In the past, it has repeatedly pledged to take it, by force if necessary.
Speaking at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Saturday, Xi said: “Reunification through a peaceful manner is the most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots.
“The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled,” Xi said.
Taiwan’s government accused China of “flexing its muscles” and fuelling regional tensions.
The Australian government has said it is concerned by a “sharpening” in tensions across the Taiwan Strait in recent months.
While it says it is committed to its one-China policy, that does not prevent Australia from strengthening ties with Taiwan, which Canberra describes as a “leading democracy” and a “critical partner”.
A spokesman for Abbott told Guardian Australia on Friday that his trip was “privately funded” and the Australian government was not given an advance copy of his speech.
Abbott, as prime minister, oversaw the signing of Australia’s free trade agreement with China and lauded Xi at a state dinner in Canberra in 2014. But he said on Friday that “much has changed” since then.
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Over the past year and a half, Beijing has rolled out tariffs and other trade actions against Australian export sectors including barley, wine, seafood and coal.
China has also blocked ministerial-level talks, amid a souring of the relationship over a range of issues, including Australia’s early public calls for an international investigation into the Covid-19 origins and its criticism of China over the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Australia cited the deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific when it announced last month that it was joining with the US and the UK to acquire at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines under the new Aukus deal.