Representatives of the Chinese government warned current and former Canadian officials at a recent meeting that Ottawa should not send any more military vessels through the Taiwan Strait, saying it is a provocative move that threatens peace.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, took part in what is called the China-Canada Track Two Dialogue – part of an informal back-channel diplomacy between the two countries that met five times previous in the past few years.
It normally takes place between former politicians and academics from both countries but the meeting on Oct. 21 also included Dominic Barton, Canada’s current envoy to Beijing and a minister-counsellor from China’s embassy in Ottawa.
Mr. Saint-Jacques, who finished his posting in China in 2016 and is now retired from Canada’s diplomatic corps, said this back-channel meeting was the first time he remembers the Chinese side bringing a Taiwan expert to the table. Wang Zaixi, a former high-ranking official in China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, was among those speaking for China.
This meeting took place just days after the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg and the American destroyer USS Dewey sailed through the Taiwan Strait, which separates the People’s Republic of China from the island of Taiwan. Canadian warships use this strait about once a year and, in this case, HMCS Winnipeg was headed to a United Nations security operation.
The Canadian government says it has a right to use this waterway. “Passage through the Taiwan Strait is consistent with past Royal Canadian Navy practice and international law,” Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations at the Department of National Defence, said in a statement.
But the Chinese conveyed their displeasure with the trip, Mr. Saint-Jacques said. “They said it was not conducive to peace and that we should refrain from engaging in similar activities in the future.”
Beijing’s authoritarian rulers consider Taiwan a breakaway province even though the Chinese Communist Party, which seized power more than 70 years ago, has never ruled the island. The Communist Party has not ruled out using force to take control of Taiwan, which peacefully transitioned to democracy from martial law in the late 20th century.
In recent years Beijing has militarized the South China Sea and in recent months has stepped up intimidating military sorties against Taiwan.
The former Canadian diplomat said the Chinese participants in this October meeting appeared to echo official lines from the Xi Jinping government.
“All the Chinese participants seemed to be reading from the same script,” he said. “Their message was, Canada should learn from your mistakes and you should stop being the lapdog of the United States and things can get back to normal.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques said sometimes in back-channel diplomacy, when former officials are talking to each other, there can be a frank exchange of views and consideration of new ideas. But in the October meeting, he said, “There is no separation between officials and former officials.”
He said the gist of what Chinese representatives said was: “Your future is bright if you stick with us; if you do what we ask you to do.”
Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, played co-host at the event along with Wang Chao, president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Houlden declined to discuss the details of the high-level meeting but conceded the Chinese side made it very clear they did not want Canadian warships to go through the Taiwan Strait.
“They are not in favour of that, but that is consistent with Chinese public statements,” he said. “My own view is that there is nothing in the Law of the Sea that prohibits military vessels from transitioning international waters. Both China and Canada are signatories to the Law of the Sea.”
After the transit, the U.S. military said the sailing “demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies and partners to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Despite these concerns, Mr. Houlden said, “Clearly the Chinese side would like to improve relations with Canada,” but he pointed out there “has been a big erosion of trust and I can’t imagine things going back to status quo.”
Canada’s ambassador to China, Mr. Barton, also spoke at the event but Mr. Houlden said he could not reveal what the envoy said.
However, Mr. Barton was interviewed by the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times last week on the sidelines of the 43rd Canada-China Business Council business dinner held in Beijing.
The Global Times said Mr. Barton spoke “positively” about bilateral relations now that Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been released from Chinese prisons and Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou has been allowed to return home to China.
“What I just think we should reflect on is, we’re not saying we’ve solved all the problems. We’ve still got lots of issues, but a major emotional issue is now off the table,” the ambassador said.
With a report from Reuters
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.