Scott Morrison has incorrectly characterised Australia’s policy on Taiwan in a radio interview in which he also declared he “stood for freedom”.
Despite Australian government figures publicly warning about the risk of war in the region, the prime minister appeared to endorse a formula for Taiwan that is actually Beijing’s stated vision for unification with the currently self-governed island.
When speaking about Taiwan, Morrison referred to “one country, two systems” – the principle that China pledged to apply when Hong Kong was returned to Beijing’s control in 1997. But this is not Australia’s policy in relation to Taiwan, and both sides of Taiwanese politics reject the idea.
The prime minister made the blunder on the same day a Chinese government agency suspended a form of economic dialogue with Australia – in what experts described as a mainly symbolic move indicative of the worsening relationship between the two countries.
The freeze is seen as Beijing’s first concrete response to the Australian government’s decision last month to tear up Victoria’s belt and road-related agreements, and confirmation this week of a defence department review of the Port of Darwin lease.
During the Thursday morning interview on Melbourne radio station 3AW, Morrison was asked whether Australia stood with Taiwan, after the island’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, renewed his calls for help to defend it against Xi Jinping’s “expansionism”.
“We’ve always honoured all of our arrangements in the Indo-Pacific, particularly our alliance with the United States,” Morrison told the broadcaster Neil Mitchell.
“We’re very cognisant of the uncertainties in our region, Neil, and I’m not one to speak at length on these things, because I don’t wish to add to any uncertainty. But that’s why we have the security arrangements we have in place.
“We have always understood the ‘one system, two countries’ arrangement, and we will continue to follow our policies there … ‘one country, two systems’, I should say.”
Pressed again on whether Australia stood with Taiwan, Morrison said: “We always have stood for freedom in our part of the world.”
It appears Morrison had meant to note Australia’s “one China policy”, in which 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.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, said that “in diplomacy, especially on issues of our national security, words matter”.
“There are few more sensitive issues for our security than Taiwan and Mr Morrison’s lack of focus on detail is enough to keep you up at night,” Wong told Guardian Australia.
“Days after his government was beating the drum for conflict over Taiwan, today Mr Morrison appears to have shifted Australia’s bipartisan position to abandoning Taiwan entirely.
“‘One Country, Two Systems’ has never been Australia’s position on Taiwan – it would put Taiwan in the same category as Hong Kong.”
Dr Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Tasmania, said “One Country Two Systems” referred to “a schema for unification between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China first proposed by Beijing [in] 1982”.
“It holds that Taiwan will become part of the PRC but maintain a degree of autonomy in a Two Systems phase that over time will evolve into a single system as development and modernisation between Taiwan and mainland China converged,” he said.
Harrison said the idea had been “applied ultimately to the reversion of Hong Kong to PRC sovereignty”.
After Beijing intensified its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong last year, Taipei’s leaders raised fears that China was trying to “turn Taiwan into the next Hong Kong”.
Harrison said the One Country Two Systems formula for unification with Taiwan had been reaffirmed by Xi in a major speech in January 2019 – but it had “always been rejected by both sides of Taiwan’s politics”.
“Australia conducts relations with Taiwan under a One China Policy, which is distinct from Beijing’s One China Principle,” Harrison said.
“Australia does not recognise Taiwan as a state in the international system but only goes so far as to acknowledge the position of Beijing that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.
“On the basis of this deliberate ambiguity over Taiwan’s sovereignty, Australia maintains good relations with Taiwan in areas of trade, culture and education and wide range of cooperation on global governance issues.”
The Australian government has been increasingly vocal in recent times in pushing for Taiwan’s participation in forums such as the World Health Assembly, and some Coalition and Labor backbenchers have been calling for a free trade agreement with Taipei.
Morrison said on Thursday Australia wanted to “keep the South China Sea free and open for transit” and would work with “whoever is in favour” of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The prime minister also told 3AW it was “not the case” that the defence minister, Peter Dutton, had authorised remarks by Michael Pezzullo, head of his former department of home affairs, to speak about the increasing drumbeat to war.
Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, told the Australian Financial Review on Thursday that an invasion of the island was “not imminent”, but China was deploying hybrid warfare and seemed to be “preparing for a final assault against Taiwan”.
Wu repeated remarks he made in an interview with the Guardian in December suggesting that Australia and the rest of the international community must join together in resisting China’s expansionism.
China’s National Development and Reform Commission said on Thursday it would “indefinitely suspend” all activities under a forum called the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED).
It blamed the Australian government’s recent “series of measures to disrupt the normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Australia out of cold war mindset and ideological discrimination”.
Australia’s trade minister, Dan Tehan, labelled the move “disappointing” describing the dialogue as “an important forum for Australia and China to work through issues relevant to our economic partnership”, although he also noted it was last held in 2017.
“We remain open to holding the dialogue and engaging at the ministerial level,” Tehan said in a statement.
Trade expert Dr Jeffrey Wilson, of the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia, said the last time a meeting was held under the SED banner was in Beijing in 2017 when Morrison participated as treasurer.
“The concrete impact is zero,” Wilson said. He said Beijing had “run out of ammunition” after taking action against a range of Australian export sectors last year.
Comment has been sought from Morrison’s office.