J. Michael Cole is the Taipei-based senior adviser on countering foreign authoritarian influence at the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C., and senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa.
Despite warnings by the Chinese government that it would take “resolute and forceful measures” if Canada “interferes” with Taiwan, a multi-partisan delegation of Canadian MPs will visit Taipei this weekend. The visit will put to rest speculation since a crisis in early August, sparked by a visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that Beijing could intimidate democracies into avoiding all contact with the democratic island-nation.
Beijing, which launched major military exercises near Taiwan in retaliation for Ms. Pelosi’s visit, has since moved the goalposts when it comes to what it regards as “permissible” exchanges between foreign officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. This attempt to further isolate Taiwan comes out of frustration in Beijing, due to its failure to coerce Taiwan into submission and to prevent flourishing ties between Taiwan and the international community in recent years.
Already, several countries have demonstrated that they will not be coerced by Chinese bluster and have proceeded with planned MP visits to Taiwan, or will do so in the coming months. The visit by members of the Canada-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship group, led by Liberal Member of Parliament Judy Sgro, serves as a reaffirmation that Canada, as a sovereign state, will not allow intimidation to dictate its foreign policy. Claims of interference notwithstanding, the visit does not violate Ottawa’s “one China” policy or its position vis-a-vis China and the status of Taiwan.
It is important to emphasize that such visits, along with other forms of engagement between Canada and Taiwan, are not driven by a sense of altruism. No country’s foreign policy is determined by such sentiment, however honourable. Rather, like other countries, Canada has sustained, and in some areas deepened, its relationship with Taiwan because doing so is in our national interest. Canada has every advantage in Taiwan remaining a vibrant democracy and partner in the promotion of shared values. Likewise, it recognizes the value of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, where escalation would have a highly disruptive impact on the global economy and therefore on the well-being of every Canadian.
Canada’s official position, in which it “takes note” of Beijing’s claims over Taiwan while remaining agnostic as to Taiwan’s official status, is one that is underpinned by an embrace of the status quo – no declaration of de jure independence by Taiwan, and no use of force or coercion to compel Taiwan’s 23.5 million people to accept subjugation by the People’s Republic of China.
Given that the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is at the centre of Canada’s Taiwan policy, it is therefore reasonable that Ottawa would refuse to give in to pressure from Beijing at a time when China’s actions threaten to undermine that very status quo. At a minimum, Canada and other countries cannot countenance unilateral moves by China that erode the very essence of our strategic posture on the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan – its democracy, economy, and advanced technology – must not be overtaken by an authoritarian regime whose growing ambitions also threaten our way of life and the values that we cherish.
Conversely, abandoning our democratic ideals and decency for the sake of appeasing an autocratic regime, and ultimately surrendering to blackmail, is not in our long-term national interest. Whether Canada should even expand its existing relationship with Taiwan by engaging in other areas is an ongoing debate in Ottawa, and some countries, including more vulnerable democracies, such as the Czech Republic and Lithuania, have already done so despite retaliation by China. They did so because they calculated that the benefits of engagement with Taiwan outweighed the consequences. At the very least, however, Ottawa must not allow China to deem unacceptable the kind of activities that, in the past, had not provoked a harsh response – and MP visits fall in this category. If we give in to intimidation and allow autocrats to shift the goalposts, we’re only inviting a future erosion of our room to manoeuvre and, with that, of our foreign policy.
This weekend’s visit sends a strong signal that we will not be deterred. Our foreign policy is our own.