Government prepared for backlash before Tony Abbott’s Taiwan trip made public, FoI documents reveal

Australian officials prepared talking points to help the government respond to sensitive questions about Tony Abbott’s trip to Taiwan, dismissing any suggestion the former prime minister’s visit represented a policy shift.

Documents obtained by Guardian Australia reveal the Australian government was drafting its responses to potential media questions at least a week and a half before news broke of the former prime minister’s travel to Taiwan.

Abbott’s visit in October triggered a diplomatic protest from Beijing, after he raised fears that the Chinese government “could lash out disastrously very soon” amid increasing military pressure against the democratically governed island, which he also referred to as a country.

Abbott told an international forum in Taipei the US and Australia could not stand idly by in the event of a military conflict over Taiwan, which China regards as its breakaway province that will one day be “reunified” with the mainland.

At the time, the Chinese embassy in Canberra attacked Abbott personally as a “failed and pitiful politician” who had engaged in a “despicable and insane performance in Taiwan”.

The Australian government has always maintained Abbott visited Taiwan in a private capacity, not as its representative.

The documents obtained under FoI do not contradict that position, but they show the travel did not come as a surprise to the government, and officials clearly anticipated the diplomatic sensitivities.

If the government was asked whether Australia had changed its policy regarding Taiwan, the planned response was: “No, this is a private visit that has no bearing on our policy settings.

“Australia remains committed to our one-China policy. The Australian government does not take a position on Taiwan’s future status – that is a matter for the parties involved.”

Under Australia’s one-China policy, it does not recognise Taiwan as a country in the international system but pursues cooperation with the island in areas such as trade, culture and education.

While Australia recognises the government of the People’s Republic of China as China’s sole legal government, Australia merely acknowledges the PRC’s position that Taiwan is its province.

An assistant director in Dfat’s Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan Section sent an email to multiple Australian officials with the “media talking points” attached, 11 days before Abbott arrived in Taipei.

While some of the names are redacted, the recipients included the representative at the Australian Office in Taipei, Jenny Bloomfield, and Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher. A senior official at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was also included.

Questions anticipated

The email on Friday 24 September also mentioned the office of the foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the office of the trade minister, Dan Tehan.

“For colleagues in [those offices], we note Mr Abbott’s visit is taking place in a quarantine bubble and so we will not be providing the support that we normally would for a former prime minister’s visit,” the email said.

If asked “Why is Mr Abbott visiting Taiwan”, the approved response was to say he “has been invited to Taipei to deliver the keynote address at the annual Yushan Forum in Taipei, as a former prime minister”.

The talking points included a line, “if required”, to make clear that Abbott “is not attending the forum in his role as Australia’s special trade envoy for India”.

The document shows officials anticipated a potential question: “Given the sensitivities over Taiwan, won’t Mr Abbott’s visit cause damage to bilateral relations with China? / Has China raised objections about the visit?”

The suggested response was: “Mr Abbott’s visit to Taiwan is in a private capacity. Australia maintains close and positive trade, economic and cultural ties with Taiwan, consistent with our one-China policy.

“Unofficial visits and engagements between the people of our two economies help maintain and build these important economic and people-to-people links.”

The talking points repeated the longstanding Australian government position that Taiwan’s future should be resolved peacefully without “the use or threat of force or coercion”.

Abbott given list of contacts

The partly-redacted documents also indicate Abbott was given a list of contacts, including the mobile number of Bloomfield from the Australian office in Taipei. Bloomfield was in attendance when Abbott met Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, during the visit.

Abbott’s office confirmed to Guardian Australia that it had notified the Australian Office in Taipei of the planned travel prior to his departure, saying it was “a standard courtesy we extend to Australian posts overseas whenever Mr Abbott travels”.

“In response the Office sent us a document detailing helpful information pertaining to such things as weather, electricity outlets, Taiwanese business hours, and emergency medical numbers,” a spokesperson for Abbott said.

“It did not include any policy information, and was the extent to which Mr Abbott received any briefing from Dfat.”

The spokesperson said Abbott had updated his entry on the Australian government’s foreign influence transparency register to include his attendance at the Yushan forum, but “the update is waiting to be published”.

The talking points noted that another former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had “attended the Yushan Forum in 2020”. But in that case, Turnbull addressed the event by video link.

Around the time of Abbott’s trip, both sides of Australian politics raised concerns about an increase in incursions by China’s military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

But the defence minister, Peter Dutton, attracted controversy a month after Abbott’s trip when the minister said it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not join US-backed military action in the event Beijing sought to seize Taiwan.

Comment was also sought from Dfat.