Skip to main content
opinion

Charles Burton is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, and non-resident senior fellow of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. He served as a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing.

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week may have lasted only 19 hours, but it aggravated tensions between China, the United States and Taiwan to heights not seen in decades, and moved the geostrategic dynamic between them further along the road to military confrontation.

As Speaker of the House, one of Washington’s most powerful symbols, Ms. Pelosi and her delegation flew out of Taiwan on Wednesday after meeting with political leaders and human rights activists, and after emphasizing American support for Taiwan’s democracy as “one of the freest societies in the world.”

Her provocative trip had been opposed by the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon, and was described as “foolish, dangerous and unnecessary” by former Australian prime minister Paul Keating. In a lengthy video call just days ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping menaced U.S. President Joe Biden with over-the-top rhetoric, threatening that those who “play with fire” over Taiwan will “perish by it.” Beijing insists that any official contact between the U.S. and Taiwan violates China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In July, China’s foreign ministry warned there would be “serious consequences” for which Washington would be held fully responsible if Ms. Pelosi travelled to Taiwan.

What’s happening in the Taiwan Strait? China’s military drills and Nancy Pelosi’s visit explained

Why Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan, and why China is angry about the visit

Predictably, Russia has chimed in with a strong statement: tensions arising from Ms. Pelosi’s visit should “not be underestimated,” said a Kremlin spokesperson.

Ms. Pelosi’s gambit also played to domestic politics back home, where in the runup to mid-term elections Democrats are struggling to keep control of Congress as Trumpist Republicanism again rears its ugly head.

As it became apparent in the hours preceding her visit that Ms. Pelosi would not be cowed by Mr. Xi’s ugly threats, China turned up the bombast. Beijing, in stating the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would not sit idly by while a senior U.S. official set foot in Taiwan, announced a major live-fire military exercise will be staged this week in the seas around Taiwan. Social media lit up with lurid propaganda, with Newsweek reporting that one former Chinese state-run tabloid editor suggested the air force could “shoot down” Ms. Pelosi’s plane (the post has since been deleted); Chinese TV showed military hardware being moved to the shores of the Taiwan Straits; airports in Fujian were closed to civilian traffic; Chinese fighter jets began skirting Taiwan airspace.

Beyond the threats, the only visible substantive action so far has been cyber-attacks against the President of Taiwan’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which the technologically savvy Taiwanese remedied in a matter of minutes). China also announced that some NGOs, like the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, would be sanctioned.

For his part, Mr. Xi appears to be grasping at straws to convince his own public that China did not lose face when Ms. Pelosi refused to back down. Chinese media reject the notion that there is any separation of power between Mr. Biden and Ms. Pelosi, and Mr. Xi will be under a lot of pressure to do more.

For example, the live-fire exercise could be a precursor to a long-threatened blockade of the island. Seeing as Taiwan produces at least 80 per cent of the world’s semiconductors, such a blockade could have a massive impact on the global economy, including Canada’s.

In Taiwan, Ms. Pelosi made a point of saying her visit “honours America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy,” and promoted “our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region. America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”

Beijing’s most emphatic criticism of Ms. Pelosi is that she is undercutting the commitment of the U.S. and other Western democracies, including Canada, to “the one-China principle.” The commitment to “one China” made sense in 1970 when Canada switched its formal China recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Back then, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek said his “Republic of China” government was just in temporary exile in Taiwan and would, with U.S. help, soon expel the illegitimate Beijing regime of the Chinese Communist “red bandits.” But Chiang died in 1975, and not long after any claim that his army would “gloriously retake the mainland” was quietly abandoned. So today, everybody agrees that the Beijing government is the government of “one China.” There is no longer any “two China” principle left to violate.

The pivotal issue is whether or not Taiwan is legitimately just a province of that “one China.” Beijing’s claims that the Taiwan government is a rogue regime may be of no direct concern to Canada or the U.S., but the fact remains that an elected, democratic government is in political control of Taiwan and the smaller islands under its authority.

As a sovereign nation, Canada should not be taking direction from China or be intimidated into shunning Taiwan’s democratic regime. Canada must retain its ability to negotiate bilateral trade and other matters of critical geostrategic interest, including global health, airspace, and climate change, with Taiwan directly.

We need to have the courage to calmly make this clear to Beijing. But, inexplicably, Canada has had no ambassador to China in place since Dominic Barton decamped from his Beijing post in December, 2021. Our voice in Beijing is now muted. Even more worrying is an ongoing internal debate over whether Canada’s long purported Indo-Pacific policy reset is stagnating.

China will likely soon make some form of wanton response to Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, which will heighten global tensions and threaten world peace. Canada’s “what, me – worry?” attitude toward China may well come back to haunt us soon. It is high time for Canada to make its presence, and position, known in the China-Taiwan affair.

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