TAIPEI, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said on Thursday he was in Taiwan to help end its international isolation, offering his support to the democratically run island even in the face of what he called China's "challenges".
Abbott, who made the comments to President Tsai Ing-wen at her office in Taipei, is not visiting in any official capacity, but his trip comes as Western democracies seek to support the island in the face of growing pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory.
Abbott praised Taiwan's success at controlling the COVID-19 pandemic despite its absence from global bodies such as the World Health Organization, its membership being blocked by China as it views Taiwan as one of its provinces, not a country.
"It is in large measure to try to help to end this isolation from which Taiwan has been suffering for so many decades that I am here in this country and I do hope that this will be the first of many visits," he said.
Taiwan shows others in the region it is possible to be both rich and free, and democracies should stand together, Abbott added.
"Of course not everyone and not everywhere is pleased at Taiwan's progress, and I do note that Taiwan is challenged on an almost daily basis by its giant neighbour," he said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Abbott in was Taiwan as a private citizen.
"I didn't have any conversation with him before that. Tony has served as my envoy to India. We went to India. We spoke, but Tony is there as a private citizen. So what he's said and what messages he passed, he passed on in that capacity."
Abbott's visit comes after China carried out four days of mass air force incursions into Taiwan's air defence zone beginning last Friday.
Australia, like most countries, has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but has joined its ally the United States in expressing concern at Chinese pressure, especially militarily.
Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend itself if China attacks.
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