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Canada’s shifting views on China and Taiwan

By I-wei Jennifer Chang, research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute

On October 14 and 15, the USS Dewey and Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg sailed through the Taiwan Strait in the first joint transit coordinated by the US and Canadian navies.

“Dewey’s and Winnipeg’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies and partners to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said the US military. However, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) criticized the operation: “The United States and Canada colluded to provoke and stir up trouble […] seriously jeopardizing [the] peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.” The United States and Canadian joint transit marked a potential turning point in Ottawa’s long-standing policy towards China and Taiwan. A downturn in bilateral relations since 2018 has caused Ottawa to reassess its ties with Beijing, and has created an opening for steady engagement with Taiwan. Clearly, Canada is emerging as an important regional stakeholder in Indo-Pacific security and as a supporter of Taiwanese efforts to carve out more international space.

Canadian Naval transits in the Indo-Pacific region

Prior to the first US-Canadian joint passage through the Taiwan Strait, the Canadian navy had conducted several solo transits through the Strait in recent years. Previously, the Royal Canadian Navy said its passage through the Taiwan Strait in 2019 was not intended to make a political statement; rather, it was “the most direct route” between its United Nations sanctions monitoring activities in the seas near North Korea and its engagements in Southeast Asia. Yet internal government documents suggest that at least one of its Taiwan Strait transits had “demonstrated Canadian support for our closest partners and allies, regional security, and the rules-based international order.”Indeed, the US-Canadian joint transit came as cross-Strait tensions reached new heights following the record number of PLA air incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on October 1-4, 2021.

The Canadian navy also has been more operationally active in the disputed East and South China Seas. In March of this year, a Canadian warship passed through the South China Sea while traveling from Brunei to Vietnam, and was followed by a Chinese vessel. In 2019, Canadian naval ships transiting through the South China Sea and East China Sea were buzzed by Chinese fighter jets on both occasions. While Ottawa has said that it “does not conduct so-called Freedom of Navigation operations aimed at challenging the territorial claims of other nations,” it also has expressed alarm at China’s maritime expansionism.

Global Affairs Canada, the governmental department managing foreign diplomacy, released this statement in July 2021: “Canada is particularly concerned by China’s escalatory and destabilizing actions in the East and South China Seas, including, recently, off the Philippine coast, and by the militarization of disputed features and the use of naval, coast guard, and maritime militia vessels to intimidate and threaten the ships of other states.” The statement also emphasized Canada’s commitment to “defending and revitalizing an effective rules-based international order, including for the oceans and seas.” Beijing’s newfound assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region has ignited debate within Canada about the longer-term consequences of continuing Ottawa’s traditionally risk-adverse and accommodative approach towards China.

Canada-China tensions over Meng

Relations between Canada and China took a sharp downturn following the high-profile arrest of Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), daughter of Huawei (華為) founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei (任正非). Meng, who was accused of bank and wire fraud related to sales of telecommunication equipment to Iran, was detained by Canadian police in December 2018, at the request of the United States. In apparent retaliation for Meng’s arrest, Beijing moved quickly to detain two Canadians dubbed the “two Michaels”: Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat who was working for the International Crisis Group; and Michael Spavor, a businessman who was later convicted by a Chinese court of espionage in August 2021.

The “hostage diplomacy” surrounding Meng and the “two Michaels” became the main irritant in Canadian-Chinese relations over the past few years. Although Meng was finally set free by Canadian authorities in September of this year, which led Beijing to soon release Kovrig and Spavor, it may be difficult for bilateral relations to recover and bounce back to a more cordial working relationship in the near term.

Indeed, during this three-year ordeal, bilateral relations deteriorated as Beijing and Ottawa swapped punitive measures against each other in response to Meng’s detainment as well as Chinese human rights issues. Beijing targeted Canadian exports of pork and canola as an apparent means to penalize Ottawa for Meng’s detention, leading to a 16-percent drop in Canadian exports to China in 2019. In March 2021, Canada joined the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union to impose sanctions on Chinese officials suspected of participating in the persecution of the ethnic Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Ottawa announced that its sanctions against four Chinese officials and one entity in China “underscore Canada’s grave concerns with the ongoing human rights violations occurring in the XUAR, affecting Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.”

Beijing then responded by slapping unilateral sanctions on US, Canadian, and EU officials and entities. China sanctioned Canadian Member of Parliament (MP) Michael Chong of the Conservative Party and the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights; the latter had concluded that Beijing was conducting genocide in Xinjiang. Chong expressed that Canada has a “duty to call out China” on its crackdown in Hong Kong and its genocide of the Uyghurs. “If that means China sanctions me, I’ll wear it as a badge of honor,” he wrote on Twitter.

The pressure on the Canadian government to promote a more values-based foreign policy, particularly in its relations with China, also extends to its policy on Taiwan. As GTI Senior Non-Resident Fellow J. Michael Cole has argued, Ottawa needs to bring more moral clarity to its treatment of Taiwan, which he called a “natural ally” that shares similar values with Canada. The tensions with Beijing have highlighted the need to for Ottawa to decouple from China, diversify its relationships in the Indo-Pacific region, and unite with other democratic nations against Beijing’s expansionism and coercive diplomacy.

Ottawa has been urged to work with like-minded regional partners like Taiwan to uphold the rules-based international order in the region in the face of the persistent challenge from China. Some Canadian commentators have touted Taiwan as a country that practices fair trade and promotes public health, and thus argue that the island democracy could be a reliable partner for Canada.

Canada-Taiwan Relations Framework Act

On June 17, Conservative Party politician Michael Cooper, a member of the Canadian House of Commons, introduced the Canada-Taiwan Relations Framework Act as a legal framework for strengthening bilateral ties in the absence of official ties. Cooper tweeted: “Taiwan is one of Canada’s largest trading partners, a leading democracy & one of the world’s top economies. Canada’s policy towards Taiwan should reflect this reality.”

The bill proposes that Ottawa support Taiwan’s participation in multilateral international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); waive the visa requirement for high-level Taiwanese government officials, including the president, to enter Canada; and allow the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada (駐加拿大台北經濟文化代表處) to be renamed as the “Taiwan Representative Office” (台灣代表處). Ottawa and Taipei can also sign mutual agreements, including international agreements between countries, according to the legislation. The draft bill was approved by the House of Commons the same day that it was introduced.

Cooper stressed that the relationship between Canada and Taiwan should not be subject to the dictates of the Chinese Communist regime. He said that the Canada-Taiwan Relations Framework Act does not violate his country’s “One-China Policy” (一個中國政策) , pointing out that Ottawa said that it merely “takes note” of Beijing’s claims to Taiwan when it recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1970. Such an interpretation means that Canada and Taiwan have a certain degree of flexibility to further bolster relations, according to Cooper, though Beijing is likely to push back against perceived contraventions of this principle.

Support for Taiwan in International Organizations

In recent years, Canada has spoken out with other Western countries in favor of Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. The G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ joint statement in May 2021 backed Taiwan’s participation in WHO forums and the World Health Assembly (WHA). Moreover, prime minister Justin Trudeau announced to the Parliament in January 2020 that he supported observer status for Taiwan in the WHO, especially when the island “provides important contributions to the global public good” during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We believe that Taiwan’s role as an observer in the World Health Assembly meetings is in the best interest of the international health community and [it] is an important partner in the fight against this epidemic,” Trudeau said. Ottawa also has endorsed Taiwan’s bid to join ICAO meetings to engage on global air security and regulations, calling Taiwan’s absence from such international organizations “detrimental to global interests.”

Issues related to the CPTPP

Taipei is also counting on Canadian support for the island’s bid to enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an 11-nation regional trade bloc of which Canada is a member. Taiwan formally applied to join the CPTPP on September 22, less than a week after China submitted its membership application. Beijing responded to Taipei’s CPTPP application by underscoring that Taiwan’s accession must be based on the “One-China Principle” (一個中國原則). Meanwhile, news reports indicate that Canada, Japan, and Australia may be working behind the scenes to assist with Taiwan’s membership bid. Canadian officials are hard-pressed not to publicly support or comment on either Taiwan’s or China’s CPTPP applications, though a 2020 public opinion poll found that 68 percent of Canadians support Taiwan’s accession into the CPTPP.

Taiwan’s entry into the CPTPP could further deepen Taiwan-Canada economic and trade links and provide an alternative to negotiating a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA). In 2018 Ottawa began exploring the option of a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA)—a steppingstone to an FTA—with Taiwan, but talks were repeatedly delayed for fear of angering Beijing and were later shelved. The difficulties in realizing a Canada-Taiwan FTA mainly lie in Beijing’s demand that foreign governments must first sign an FTA with China before they can negotiate with Taipei. However, Ottawa has decided against pursuing FTA talks with Beijing, which could procedurally complicate FTA negotiations with Taipei under the “China first, Taiwan second” sequencing. Given these circumstances, perhaps the best method for Taipei and Ottawa to achieve bilateral free trade is through Taiwan’s membership in the CPTPP.

Canada is at a potential turning point in its relations with China and Taiwan. As many countries around the world, in particular Western countries, have begun reassessing their policies toward China in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness, Canada is showing signs that it is also gradually moving in this direction. A greater focus on Chinese challenges to Canada’s broader interests in peace and security and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, and an emphasis on values-based foreign policy, could make Taiwan a more attractive partner for Ottawa. Removing some of Canada’s self-imposed restrictions on its engagement with Taipei would be the first step in creating opportunities for higher levels of contact and cooperation with Taipei.

The main point: Canada has started to shed some of its traditional reluctance to engage more meaningfully with Taiwan, and it could become an important stakeholder in Indo-Pacific security and a supporter of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. 

This article originally published by Global Taiwan Institute Vol. 6, Issue 21, November 3, 2021, Global Taiwan Brief.

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