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True North Far East is dedicated to chronicling Canada-China relations and the surprising ways the two countries are influencing each other

Resisting Beijing: Is it time for Canada and Taiwan to deepen ties?

Resisting Beijing: Is it time for Canada and Taiwan to deepen ties?

As ties with Beijing sour, there is renewed interest in strengthening Canada’s relationship with Taiwan.


Just the Basics

  • Unlike many other countries, Canada managed to establish relations with China without explicitly endorsing Beijing’s policy on Taiwan

  • Efforts to woo Beijing as well as pressure from China have dictated Canada’s relationship with Taiwan, with Canadian companies and institutions being intimidated by the PRC

  • With relations with the PRC at a historic low, there are calls for greater support for Taiwan - a fellow democracy besieged by China


As Canadians sour on the prospect of engaging with China, there is a growing chorus of voices - in both Taiwan and Canada - for a closer relationship between Ottawa and Taipei. Such calls are a cyclical feature in Canadian-Taiwanese relations, yet the historical nadir that characterizes current Sino-Canadian ties is giving hope to some that this time things will be different - that real change is afoot. Canada finds itself in a unique position regarding Taiwan when compared to other Western nations, as Ottawa managed to thread the needle during recognition negotiations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), using language which preserved a degree of latitude for Ottawa going forward. In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau switched Canada’s recognition from the Kuomintang (KMT) governed Republic of China (ROC) to the PRC, almost a decade before Richard Nixon’s famous trip to China.

While Ottawa recognized the necessity of establishing normal relations with the world’s most populous nation, Canada was also hesitant to fully rescind its support for Taiwan. Specifically, Canada was not willing to acquiesce to Chinese demands that it accept Beijing’s claim that Taiwan was an inalienable part of China.

The PRC’s ‘One China’ stipulation - i.e. that nations wishing to engage with Beijing must renounce their recognition of the ROC - forms the keystone of Chinese foreign policy; a non-negotiable tenet for any working relation with Beijing. China’s economic and political clout largely renders any opposition to this clause moot: only a handful of nations in Central America, Oceania and Africa continue to recognize Taiwan. The situation facing Canada in 1970 was very different. While Beijing had slowly been eroding the ROC’s international recognition since the PRC was proclaimed in 1949, by 1970 a significant number of states continued to recognize Taiwan, including many major Western powers, including the United States.

Politically isolated China viewed Canada as more amenable to recognizing Beijing than the U.S. Beijing hoped that by flipping Canada (a country in America’s backyard) it could generate momentum and convince other U.S allies to switch their recognition. With Canada under Trudeau open to recognition, Beijing and Ottawa began negotiations; however, the Canadian government refused to support China’s inalienable claims to Taiwan. In order not to scupper the talks, a crafty compromise was reached. In the 1970 joint communique, it is written that “the Chinese Government reaffirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. The Canadian Government takes note of this position of the Chinese Government.”

The phrase ‘taking note’ was considered acceptable to both parties, but it does not actually connote any acceptance of the aforementioned position on Canada’s part. Speaking on Canada-Taiwan relations, foreign correspondent, and author of Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, Jonathan Manthorpe notes that “unlike most other Western governments, [Canada] did it - at the insistence of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and much to Beijing’s annoyance - without appearing to accept China’s claim to ‘own’ Taiwan.” As such China made sure to insist on more precise language in subsequent recognition negotiations with other nations. Consequently, while Canada’s ties with Taiwan are (like other nations) limited by Chinese diplomatic pressure, Canada technically reserves the right to engage with Taiwan however it so chooses; a degree of latitude not afforded (at least on paper) to other countries.

That being said, the United States remains a far more vocal support of Taiwan, as the two countries enjoy close, if unofficial, ties. Ambiguities in America’s Taiwan Relations Act means that Washington can dangle the implied threat of potential American intervention in the event that China attacks Taiwan. The Act also sees the U.S reserve the right to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

Canada wasted its first chance with Taiwan

Whatever leverage Canada may have gained via clever wordplay at Beijing’s expense, Ottawa has done little to capitalize on it. Whereas other countries like the United States and Japan moved immediately to establish trade offices (effectively de facto embassies) in Taiwan after switching their recognition to the PRC, it took Canada sixteen years to do so. There is also no Canadian equivalent to Washington’s Taiwan Relations Act, a fact which denies Canadian-Taiwanese ties a firm groundwork on which to build. This lack of a clear framework was compounded by Canada’s pro-PRC stance under Pierre Trudeau, notably during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Specifically, the PRC objected to the participation of Taiwanese athletes competing under the ROC name.

While Trudeau and Canada supported the PRC’s position, the United States supported Taiwan, even threatening to boycott the games in Montreal. By way of compromise Trudeau floated the idea of ROC athletes competing as ‘Taiwan’ but this was rejected by the ROC, which pulled out of the games. Trudeau’s actions met with reproach both in Canada - former PM Diefenbaker thought the incident “[gave] Canada a black eye internationally” - and in the U.S. American media outlets were in an uproar, with the New York Times characterizing the actions of the Canadian government as “flagrant political abuse and misuse of the Games, [making a] mockery of the Olympic ideal.” The Washington Star went further, claiming that “the cowardly, deceitful conduct of the government of Canada is trying the world’s patience just a little too much.”

Given Canada’s chequered track record vis-a-vis Taiwan, the two countries would appear to make for strange bedfellows for any future resistance efforts against Beijing. Initially there were few reasons aside from geopolitical solidarity with America for Canada to favour the ROC over the PRC. Both entities claimed to be the sole legitimate government of all of China, and both were authoritarian regimes with bloody legacies. For much of the ROC’s existence there was little to recommend its leader Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi) over PRC leader Mao Zedong. This equation changed following Taiwan’s successful transition to democracy which began in the 1980s and saw the first non-KMT president elected in 2000. Former Canadian MP David Kilgour has described Taiwan as “a major success story” with the ROC now one of around thirty other parliamentary democracies around the world.

“Doing nothing to defend a threatened democracy signals that Canada, a fellow middle power, is also ready to, however briefly, cease defending the rules based international order that has protected it and allowed it to prosper these last seventy years.”
— Eric Lehre, senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute

Taiwan’s embrace of democracy has secured Taipei the moral high ground, as the ROC now faces-off against an increasingly authoritarian PRC under President Xi. No longer merely a Cold War relic, the lesser of two evils, the ROC now embodies a clear rebuke of Beijing’s governing style. Remarking on the ROC’s ethical clout, Premier of Alberta and former Harper government minister Jason Kenney has argued that Taiwan is “the one-word rebuttal to the notion [espoused by Beijing] that Chinese culture is not compatible with democracy.”

China targets Canada in its anti-Taiwan campaign

The election of President Tsai Ing-wen, a vocal critic of China, in 2016 has led Beijing to double down on its efforts to isolate Taiwan as the current government has departed from the more conciliatory tone of its predecessor. Speaking on the matter, President Tsai explains that “[by] using economic incentives, control over sources of information, and political subversion, China’s objective is to divide our society, erode trust in public institutions and make people question our traditional alliances. The U.S, together with like-minded countries [such as Canada] can help.”

Prior to 2016 Beijing had sought to prevent any foreign policy embarrassments for Tsai’s pro-China predecessor Ma Ying-jeou - including refusing offers from Gambia and El Salvador to switch their recognition to the PRC. Since Tsai’s election, Beijing has restarted its recognition drive, managing to flip several of Taiwan’s supporters in Africa and Latin America in recent years.

Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation and exclusion from important multilateral agreements hampers Canadian investors from fully realizing their goals.

China’s anti-Taiwan campaign has also extended to Canada, as several Canadian companies including Air Canada, have been pressured by Beijing to expunge any mention of Taiwan as a separate political entity. For instance, Taiwanese destinations such as Taipei are now listed as part of China on Air Canada flight schedules. Royal Bank of Canada, Manulife and Montreal’s Alimentation have all been rebuked for Taiwan-related labelling / references by the Chinese government. In May 2018, a firestorm was sparked on Chinese social media after a t-shirt allegedly being sold by GAP stores in Toronto displayed a map of China which excluded Taiwan: GAP promptly issued a public apology and promised to investigate the matter.

For the past twenty years, the annual Taiwan Night has been a popular draw for politicians in Ottawa without attracting the ire of Beijing, yet following the January 2016 election of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the 2016 edition faced strong criticism from Chinese officials. Angered by comments made by former Veterans Affairs minister Kent Hehr and former Public Services minister Judy Foote and other Liberal MPs referring to Taiwan as a country, the Chinese embassy issued a formal complaint. The previous year, the University of Ottawa was bombarded by emails and callers mobilized by the Chinese embassy to protest against a talk by Andre Yang, Taiwan’s former minister of national defence.

The spectre of Chinese outrage even haunts the Canadian government, with China complaining after Canada signed a tax treaty with Taiwan in 2016. The evidence of Chinese pressure can even be seen in the inconsistent stance taken by various Canadian government agencies regarding Taiwan. Canada Border Services uses the term Chinese Taipei (the name under which Taiwan competes in the Olympics) - a fact which has drawn criticism from both Taiwanese and domestic sources - while Global Affairs and Statistics Canada refer to the ROC as Taiwan. Canada has let China dictate Ottawa’s engagement with Beijing to the point that “it’s risk aversion. Certain agencies in Canada are absolutely terrified when it comes to engaging with Taiwan,” notes J. Michael Cole, senior fellow at the China Policy Institute.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole has also remarked on the naming discrepancy. “We are disappointed that Justin Trudeau has acquiesced to unfair Chinese demands with respect to Taiwan. [...] calling Taiwan ‘Chinese Taipei’ is a problem [...] For decades, Canada and Taiwan have enjoyed a vibrant economic relationship, as well as close people-to-people ties. This should be maintained and respected,” O’Toole complains.

Canada-Taiwan ties have grown, but there is more work to do

The question as to whether Canada should do more to support Taiwan has taken on a new relevance in the wake of the Huawei fiasco that has torpedoed relations between Ottawa and Beijing. China’s actions against Canada are leading some to question Ottawa’s overly accommodating attitude, including its marginalization of Taiwan. “So far we have operated under the assumption that downgrading relations with Taiwan would bring benefits to our relations with China,” states Scott Simon, chair of Taiwan Studies at the University of Ottawa, “ [but] it has not made them any kinder to Taiwan or to us.”

There have been some signs of greater engagement with Taiwan, including the establishment of visa-free travel for Taiwanese citizens to Canada and vice-versa - a benefit currently denied Chinese travellers. Taiwan has also become the first country outside North America to play host to a Canadian Technology Accelerator - a centre aimed at fostering start-ups - and both countries have signed agreements on foreign investment protection and working holidays.

Taiwan’s economic miracle and democratic credentials have boosted the island’s relationship with Canada, with bilateral trade totalling $7.8 billion in 2018; making Taiwan Canada’s 11th largest (and fifth largest in Asia) trading partner. People to people ties between the two countries have also accelerated, with around 60,000 Canadians living in Taiwan - one of Ottawa’s largest expat communities. Similarly, some 250,000 people of Taiwanese descent reside in Canada. That being said, more needs to be done to facilitate greater cohesion between Taipei and Ottawa.

Canada-Taiwan bilateral trade (2008-2018) in billions of dollars

Source: Statistics Canada

A top priorityshould be the signing of an extradition treaty, a shortcoming that came to public attention in February 2019 after three Taiwanese citizens, including famous blogger Su Chen Tuan (aka Lady Nai Nai) fled to Canada after defrauding investors of some $40 million. The story went viral on Taiwanese social media, especially after rumours emerged that Su and her co-conspirators had applied for refugee status in Canada. The lack of an extradition treaty has stymied efforts to bring the trio to justice, and whereas a special ad-hoc arrangement could be implemented, this would be complicated and “a bit like reinventing the wheel,” according to Vancouver-based extradition lawyer Gary Botting.

Canada needs to walk-the-walk on progressive values

Canada now finds itself on Beijing’s naughty list, and as Canada faces growing Chinese pushback and interference, some Taiwanese politicians have pointed out Ottawa and Taipei’s shared circumstances, with Foreign Minister Joseph Wu suggesting that the two countries share notes on their respective experiences with Chinese infiltration. Some commentators in Taiwan are going further, calling for a U-turn in Canadian foreign policy. Writing in Taiwan News, columnist David Spencer argues that “by recognizing Taiwan over China, Canada could be the country that kick starts real and lasting democratic change throughout this region. [Canadians] will never have a better opportunity to be a force for freedom and liberty throughout the world, in the manner that a multitude of Canadians believe that they are.”

Such a call to action is an example of wishful thinking par excellence as “nothing would damage Taiwan’s interests more than ill-considered moves that would destabilize the careful and cautious relationship [between] China and Taiwan,” argues Hugh Stephens, senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Perennially thin-skinned, Beijing is going to be hyper-vigilant about any perceived threats in 2019, as this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, thirty years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC. A unilateral recognition of Taiwan would not only render Beijing apoplectic but also have dangerous consequences for ordinary Taiwanese should China respond with force.

Nevertheless, those invoking Canada’s humanitarian aspirations as an impetus for Ottawa to engage more with Taiwan hit on an important point. Canada’s muted stance on Taiwan points to a discrepancy between Ottawa’s rhetoric and actions. David Mulroney, former executive director of the Canadian Trade Office in Taiwan (1998-01) and ambassador to China (2009-12) has also spoken out about Canada’s hesitancy to engage with Taiwan:

“China’s red lines about Taiwan independence are real, but Canada, like many other countries, now avoids any contact with Taiwan, which is exactly what Mr. Xi wants. That’s a lost opportunity, because exchanges in areas such as trade, education and culture are within bounds as is dialogue on the human rights central to the progressive agenda that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau champions in places such as, well, China. And if our foreign policy is, as the government boasts, truly feminist, shouldn’t we offer some support to Taiwan’s beleaguered President Tsai Ing-wen, a woman who is courageously defending value we share?”

Calls for Canada to recognize Taiwan crop up every couple of years, yet the current state of China-Canada ties has certainly made the Canadian public more receptive to the idea of greater engagement with like-minded Asian countries such as Taiwan. One way to do so appears paradoxical at first, namely signing a free trade agreement (FTA) with China. If Canada wants a FTA with Taiwan it needs to conclude deals with Beijing and Taipei at the same time, as the only two nations - Singapore and New Zealand - who have signed FTAs with both Taiwan and China, did so simultaneously. Given the lack of enthusiasm among the Canadian public for a FTA with China, this route appears to be a dead end for the time being.

Critics of China argue that integrating Taiwan into more multilateral agreements reduces the room for China to intervene by raising the stakes (i.e. the threat of wider knock-on effects) compared to perpetuating Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation. For example, Canada could lead calls for the inclusion of Taiwan into various international organizations and treaties such as INTERPOL, the International Civil Aviation Organization - ICAO (headquartered in Montreal), the World Health Organization and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Taiwan remains a glaring omission from these groups, whose membership in many cases is already near universal. Chinese obstructionism at the UN (the previous head of INTERPOL was, and current ICAO chief is,Chinese) has and will continue to lead to Taiwan’s exclusion from many key international fora. Nevertheless, by creating noise, Canada could act as an amplifier of wider international reproach of China’s stance on Taiwan.

The official portrait of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, 14th President of Taiwan

A further avenue Canada could explore would be to lead the charge for Taiwan’s inclusion in the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), something which Taipei already expressed interest in in 2016. The CPTPP is the revamped version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which emerged following Washington’s withdrawal from the latter. China is not among the eleven signatories of the CPTPP and in both Beijing and Washington’s absence, Ottawa could become a leading voice for the inclusion of Taiwan. Fred McMahon, a research fellow at the Fraser Institute argues that “Canada should welcome Taiwan’s CPTPP membership for our own self-interest economically, for geo-political reasons - the more integrated Taiwan is in the liberal democratic club, the less likely reunification can be effected through force or coercion - and as a matter of simple values.”

Whereas Taiwan would surely benefit from more links with the “liberal democratic club,” conflating members of said club with signatories of the CPTPP requires some creative categorization, if not selective blindness. The neo-liberal assertion that democracy follows in capitalism’s wake has been proven to be false, as demonstrated by China’s rapid rise; the promotion of free trade agreements is not a signifier of a nations’ democratic credentials. If we look at the eleven CPTPP signatories (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru, Mexico, Chile, Vietnam, Brunei, Japan and Malaysia), there are some glaring exceptions to this democratic club. The Economist’s 2018 Democracy Index ranked Peru, Mexico and Malaysia as flawed democracies; whereas Singapore is governed by a hybrid-regime with authoritarian proclivities; Brunei is an absolute monarchy enforcing a strict interpretation of Sharia law and Vietnam is a one-party Communist regime.

These reservations aside, McMahon’s assertion is otherwise sound, especially if one is more selective and focuses on greater ties between Taiwan and nations such as Canada as well as like-minded regional powers such as Japan and South Korea. The success of this liberal democratic club is predicated on the support for shared values, and as Eric Lehre, Munk senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute writes: “doing nothing to defend a threatened democracy signals that Canada, a fellow middle power, is also ready to, however briefly, cease defending the rules based international order that has protected it and allowed it to prosper these last seventy years.”

The Bottom Line

Despite having managed to establish normal ties with Beijing without explicitly agreeing to China’s position on Taiwan, Canada did little to capitalize on this rare degree of latitude after relations with the PRC were established in 1970. Canada has been slow to engage with Taiwan and continues to lack a clear policy towards the island nation, lagging behind other Western powers, notably the United States. Canada’s efforts to increase trade with China has seen Ottawa allow Beijing to dictate how Canada engages with Taiwan.

Taiwan’s successful transition to democracy and the recent nose-dive in Sino-Canadian relations have prompted growing calls for closer engagement. No longer merely a Cold War holdover, Taiwan represents a clear rebuke of the PRC’s governing attitude. On both sides of the Pacific, there are those calling on Canada to do more to support a fellow democracy threatened by Chinese interference. By advocating for Taiwanese inclusion in multilateral organizations and Taipei’s possible inclusion into the CPTPP, Canada could seize the moral high ground and substantiate Ottawa’s claims to a progressive foreign policy.

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