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Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu speaks during a press conference with American Institute in Taiwan director Brent Christensen, in Taipei, on Nov. 21, 2020.Johnson Lai/The Associated Press

The Foreign Affairs Minister of Taiwan says Beijing has already begun what military strategists call a “grey-zone” assault on the self-governing island of 24 million, and urges Canada and other like-minded democracies to use sanctions and increased trade ties to dissuade China from a full-scale takeover.

Grey-zone warfare falls short of outright armed conflict, and employs cyber-attacks, infiltration, disinformation, and other tactics to sap an enemy’s will.

“Many people here in Taiwan are saying the invasion [by China] may have started already,” Foreign Affairs Minister Joseph Wu said in an interview.

China weighs legal steps against ‘diehard’ supporters of Taiwan independence

Mr. Wu, who has led Taipei’s efforts to build a global coalition to counter what he calls China’s expansionism, fears Taiwan is the next target after Beijing’s recent clampdown on Hong Kong, where it has jailed legislators and quashed civil liberties under a national security law. China’s action in the former British colony violates a pledge of local autonomy, civil rights and rule of law made in a 1984 treaty with the United Kingdom.

He said the Chinese Communist Party has gained a foothold in Taiwan’s society. Media reports in Taiwan in recent years have documented ways in which the People’s Republic of China has extended its influence by placing party members in Taiwanese news media, political parties, business organizations and temples.

“Look at their infiltration activities into Taiwan. They set up their cronies in Taiwan and they are also trying to wage a disinformation campaign against Taiwan,” Mr. Wu said.

“We are seeing all kinds of disinformation surface in Taiwan’s internet or social media or even to be taken [up] by the formal media, so this is something we are very concerned about.”

He noted that cyber attacks have intensified in the past few years, and that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft are stepping up flights, sometimes several a day, headed towards Taiwan airspace. Each foray by fighters or bombers requires Taiwan to send out its own jets.

A compilation of flight data by Reuters news agency earlier this month found that since mid-September, Chinese warplanes have flown more than 100 of these missions.

“They are trying to exhaust our air defence capabilities ... all of this is very concerning,” the Foreign Affairs Minister said.

Mr. Wu said Taiwan assumes a military assault will happen “at some point.” He said the risk is greater than it has been in many decades.

“The threat is more serious. It is more genuine and it is more alarming,” he said.

Taiwan, which is not recognized as a sovereign state by most countries, including Canada, has been increasingly isolated in recent years as China steps up pressure on Taipei’s remaining diplomatic allies. This includes blocking Taiwan from participating in international agencies such as the World Health Organization, in defiance of counties that support Taiwan.

It remains, however, a self-ruled island with its own military and foreign policy, which China claims as part of its territory even though the Communists have never governed it. Defeated Nationalist forces retreated there in 1949 after they lost the Chinese civil war on the mainland to Mao Zedong’s Communists.

Taiwan is not seeking direct military support from Canada, Mr. Wu said. Instead, he hopes Canada could join with the United States, Australia, Japan, Europe and other democracies to take actions against China that would make it think twice about invading his country.

He said these countries need to come up with a strategy, because “Taiwan is under military threat like no one else is facing,” he said.

While lauding Canada for suspending an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, Mr. Wu said Canada could also impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese Communist Party officials who are responsible for the crackdown in the former British Colony, as the United States has done. Those sanctions include visa travel restrictions and freezing bank accounts.

“Some kind of sanctions so Hong Kong people feel the warmth of liberal democracies who support freedom and democracy in Hong Kong,” Mr. Wu said. “It may be effective in letting the people in Hong Kong to know they are not fighting the cause alone and they have the support of the free world.”

Canada can also send a message to Beijing that its increasingly aggressive actions globally won’t be tolerated. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has warned that agents of China are intimidating Canadians who are immigrants from the People’s Republic of China as well as Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hongkongers.

Mr. Wu suggested Ottawa could also follow the U.S. lead in shutting down Confucius Institutes and expelling representatives of Beijing state-controlled media. He also recommend an anti-infiltration law such as the one in Taiwan to identify people living in Canada who work for Chinese state-owned companies or organizations sympathetic to the Communist regime.

“I think something similar can be adopted by the Canadian Parliament to think about how the Chinese government has been entrenched so deeply into Canadian society,” he said. “But in the area of trade and investment, that is something that would be the best safeguard for Taiwan.”

Mr. Wu would like Canada to sign a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement with Taiwan, as it has done with China, and more significantly, to invite Taipei to join the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership signed in 2018, which creates a free-trade zone for Pacific Rim countries. Such an agreement, often regarded as a stepping stone to full free trade, would seek to stimulate two-way trade by enshrining legal protections for Canadian investors in Taiwan as well as Taiwanese investors in Canada.

Asked why Canadians should care about Taiwan, Mr. Wu said all democracies should stand up for his country.

“Taiwan is an outpost of democracy that is facing an onslaught of aggression of the authoritarian China,” he said.

The Canadian government, asked last week whether it is concerned about the prospect of the PLA invading Taiwan, said it does not want to see developments that alter the current arrangement.

“Canada urges both sides to refrain from actions that undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and to avoid moves that unilaterally alter the status quo,” said Christelle Chartrand, a spokeswoman for the department of Global Affairs.

As for trade negotiations with Taiwan, Ms. Chartrand said, Canada has halted new foreign investment promotion and protection agreements while it reviews how to make trade deals more inclusive of women, small businesses and Indigenous peoples.

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