If the Trudeau government truly believes in the principles of democracy and a rules-based international order, then it needs to start talking seriously with other stable democracies about formally recognizing Taiwan as the successful independent country it has become.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the decision by the United Nations General Assembly to expel the Republic of China, which had governed a broadly liberal-democratic China until its overthrow in 1949 by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army forced its government into exile on the islands of Taiwan.
As a result of that 1971 vote, the UN, and soon most member countries, stopped recognizing Taiwan as the legitimate government of China and instead gave Mao’s People’s Republic of China a permanent seat on the five-country Security Council as well as the General Assembly. That decision launched a broader international tradition of leaving the status of Taiwan deliberately ambiguous.
Fifty years later, both Taipei and Beijing are very different places.
No longer is Taiwan a military garrison claiming control of all of China. In 1992, it formally abandoned that claim and its government is committed to making Taiwan an independent country, distinct from China. Since 1996, Taiwan has been a full-fledged multiparty democracy, and successfully so.
Its current President, Tsai Ing-wen, has distinguished herself not only for being an opposition leader who made a respectful transition to elected power, but also for having managed the COVID-19 pandemic more successfully than virtually any other country. Taiwan’s 24 million people have experienced only 11 deaths, without significant restrictions on freedoms, and its vaccination campaign has been a success.
Beijing has gone in another direction. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, it has abandoned its noncommittal stance toward Taiwan and repeatedly threatened to seize control of the island and impose the “one country” restrictions Hong Kong has been forced to accept.
When U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, Beijing sent fighter jets across the Taiwan Strait, and Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian declared that “Taiwan independence means war.” Mr. Biden has, in turn, sent signals of support to Taiwan that one analysis called “surprisingly forceful.” This week, a delegation of Mr. Biden’s confidants made a visit to the island to talk with leaders, a move that drew angry rebukes from Beijing and more fighter jets across the Strait.
There’s a growing consensus in the U.S. and other Western countries around recognizing and supporting Taiwan, breaking Washington’s official posture since 1979 of “strategic ambiguity.”
Some, however, are supporting the idea for the wrong reasons. One increasingly popular school of thought among U.S. analysts and policymakers holds that recognition of Taiwan should be a strategic response to rising Chinese militancy. This unilateral approach not only raises the danger of an outright war across the Strait or even the Pacific, but it does Taiwan no favours by turning it into a pawn in a superpower struggle.
Canada needs to have a clear position on Taiwan’s sovereignty. A news report this week suggested that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan had threatened to cut off funding to the annual Halifax Security Forum if it gave an award to Ms. Tsai, out of fear of angering Beijing. He denied this, but did not sound enthusiastic about the award.
Far from being cautious to the point of acquiescence, Canada should be leading a push toward recognizing Taiwan for the right reasons: Not as a gambit in a geopolitical struggle, but because Taiwan has earned its place among the community of successful pluralist liberal democracies, in part by smartly managing relations with Beijing. Taiwan is the kind of country we should strive to be.
Taiwan is also important because its success utterly disproves the fictions propagated both by Beijing and by Western reactionaries about Chinese culture being intrinsically authoritarian and deferential. Taiwanese life is an illustration of Confucianism’s democratic roots – a future China could have.
In planning a path to a sovereign Taiwan, we need to keep two things in mind.
First, this can only be done once, and will have consequences, so the timing and messaging need to be right. Recognition of Taiwan should not appear to be a response to anything done by China, or Taipei would effectively be turned into a projectile. Taiwan deserves independence for its own, intrinsic, reasons.
Second, if it is to succeed without repercussions, it needs to be done as a truly co-ordinated act by a majority of nations, including some unlikely ones not normally allied with the United States. This will involve a major campaign of arm-twisting and incentives.
It would help if a country like Canada took a leading role in such a campaign – both because Taiwan deserves it, and because it would finally align our actions to our professed principles.