Two recently coinciding milestones capture the complicated realities of geopolitics and provide a jumping-off point for how Canadian foreign policy should evolve from now on.
The first was Taiwan’s celebration of National Day on Oct. 10, an annual commemoration of the island nation’s independence and the current success of the democratic project.
Of course, Champagne’s statement commemorates Canada’s shift from understanding the government in Taiwan as the rightful representatives of the Chinese state to recognizing the communists in Beijing as such. This fits with the hotly contested claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.
But as with much else, the reality of how the Chinese Communist Party handled the pandemic—in addition to the hostile intimidation the regime has shown regarding Meng Wanzhou’s arrest and the subsequent detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China on baseless charges—has gutted conventional wisdom and opened up opportunities for bolder strategic thinking.
The situation indicates the urgent need to revisit our relationship with Taiwan, which has mostly been handled by steadfastly avoiding any confident gesture of allyship in order to keep the CCP’s hostility at bay. Following Beijing’s “One China” shibboleth so stringently simply won’t serve our foreign policy well in this era.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's National Day address touted the island’s efforts during the pandemic to contain the virus and offer a model of good self-governance, in addition to acknowledging the need to recalibrate Taiwan’s national defence and pursuing further ties with like-minded nations to sustain a stable Pacific. Indeed, this comes amid the recent uptick in brazen militancy by the CCP, with more frequent breaches of the Taiwan Strait’s median line and Beijing’s propaganda threatening “Taiwan secessionists” with non-peaceful reunification. In response to such provocations, Tsai pledged Taipei’s commitment to “upholding cross-Strait stability” and stressed to Beijing that this must be a “joint responsibility of both sides.”
The speech was an expression of prudence by a leader under an intensifying threat. The consequences of Beijing attempting to absorb Taiwan should be a serious policy consideration for those nations worried about the communist regime’s ambitions. This requires making the Taiwan question much more central to discussions of strategy, since the fate of Taiwan is crucial for telling whether the balance of power in the Pacific will tilt in Beijing’s favour or remain as it presently is. As J.Michael Cole puts it, “Taiwan’s fate will determine the kind of China that the rest of the world will have to deal with for decades to come.”
Which brings us to where Canada stands and the desired direction of its foreign policy. Champagne’s statement is an improvement, striking a tone that is more conducive to a tough-minded approach to China. It deems Canada a “Pacific nation” and asserts that a “new framework for relations with China” will rely on working with partners to hold Beijing “accountable to its international obligations.”
Abandoning the free trade talks that were initiated four years ago also suggests that the government is at last beginning to realize the futility of economic engagement with the communists. But how would Taiwan fit into a new policy?
American and European officials have recently visited Taiwan, signalling a warming of ties in reaction to Beijing’s never-ending belligerence. But there have been no public statements or action from any member of Canada’s government indicating a visit to their counterparts in Taipei to cultivate relations. Thus far, it has only been members of the Conservatives’ shadow cabinet who have shown any real public engagement with Taiwan’s representatives.
To form any viable strategy for China, politicians across the spectrum should not be afraid to engage with Taiwan. A bipartisan consensus is much needed. Aiding this could be more institutionalization of relations through parliamentary groups and other venues, which could be reinforced by Parliament debating and passing new legislation similar to America’s Taiwan Relations Act.
Ottawa should also counter Beijing’s tactics to isolate Taiwan in the region by supporting its participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. This alliance offers a robust bulwark against Beijing’s attempts to consolidate a sphere of influence around the Pacific. It has become an oft-repeated point these days, but Canada’s national interest can only be pursued effectively through working with partners that share a common understanding of threats and visions of world order. Since Taiwan undeniably fits this criteria, it’d be foolish not to consider involving it in these initiatives.
Much has happened since Canada first established official ties with Beijing that warrants a review of the policies that have come out of those ties. An efficacious foreign policy in this era will require a morally and strategically clear assessment of who are our adversaries and who are our allies. Events of the past 18 months alone have made quite obvious the answer to who, between Beijing and Taipei, our true friend is.
It’s time to stop allowing fear of Beijing’s reaction to dictate our foreign policy and take our relationship with the small, resilient island of Taiwan more seriously.