Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Taiwanese soldiers operate a Sky Bow III (Tien-Kung III) Surface-to-Air missile system at a base in Taiwan's southeastern Hualien county on Aug. 18.Johnson Lai/The Associated Press

Guy Saint-Jacques served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently told parliamentarians to think about the consequences of visiting Taiwan, it raised some pressing questions. How dedicated is Ottawa to its goal of promoting democratic values around the world? And will the Indo-Pacific strategy that Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly is working on address Taiwan?

It is important to remember that during discussions on whether to admit the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations in 1966, Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs, Paul Martin Sr., put forward a resolution to allow the PRC and Taiwan to both be UN members. This was a temporary solution until the two sides resolved their respective territorial claims. However, U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk expressed concerns (the United States still thought that the government of Chiang Kai-shek could retake the mainland), and the upheavals generated by the cultural revolution in China led to the decision being postponed. It should be noted that if Mr. Martin’s proposal had been accepted, the situation would not have been different from having North and South Korea, or East and West Germany, at the UN. Instead, Taiwan ended up losing its UN member status in 1971, when the PRC was accepted.

The question of Taiwan came up again in the sixties, during Canada’s negotiations to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC. Faced with China’s insistence that Canada agree to its contention that Taiwan is its inalienable territory, Mitchell Sharp (who had replaced Mr. Martin) came up with wording that Canada “took note” of the Chinese government’s position. This was accepted by China, and diplomatic relations were established in October, 1970. Later, Mr. Sharp explained to Parliament that Canada will “neither challenge nor endorse” China’s position on Taiwan. This is an important nuance that should not be forgotten.

Ottawa has been struggling with formulating a revised engagement strategy with China ever since the arrests of Meng Wanzhou, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and the traumatic period that followed. It has also become impossible to ignore the aggressive direction given by President Xi Jinping to China’s foreign policy and the abuse of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.

Former foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne had launched a revision of Canada’s strategy, but the process got derailed. We later learned that the exercise had morphed into a new Indo-Pacific strategy and would not address China. But Ms. Joly, who set up an advisory committee in June, clarified that China would be included.

Ottawa is faced with the challenge of a bully that does not respect international law, but the government must find ways to deal with it, and push back when Canada’s values and interests are threatened. This should lead to an engagement strategy that is limited to areas of mutual interest, such as public health, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation. It is also crucial that Canada works in close partnership with our allies to develop common strategies to oppose the egregious behaviour of China.

However, this still leaves the question of Taiwan which, as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said, is a vibrant democracy. How can we help it protect its political system under the growing Chinese threat of invasion? For a start, Canada should encourage exchanges of parliamentarians, support Taiwan’s adhesion to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, start negotiations on a free-trade agreement, and support its participation in international organizations. (It should be noted that if the World Health Organization had listened to the warnings of Taiwan in December, 2019, it might have been possible to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Of course, for all this to happen, you need a government that believes in its rhetoric on human rights and democracy and translates that to its foreign policy. Fingers crossed.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe