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Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Keelung on March 8, 2021.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

An annual security and defence conference financially backed by the federal government has awarded its flagship prize to the President of Taiwan, a development likely to anger Beijing.

The Halifax International Security Forum, which receives half its funding from the Department of National Defence, announced Monday evening that it’s giving its 2020 John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service to Tsai Ing-wen.

“President Tsai is an inspiration and example to freedom-loving people everywhere,” Peter Van Praagh, president of the Halifax forum, told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

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“Her courage and her fortitude in defending her people against the Chinese Communist Party’s aggression are precisely the qualities the John McCain Prize was designed to recognize.”

In 2019, the award was given to the people of Hong Kong, where mass protests had followed plans to pave the way for extraditions to mainland China.

The John McCain Prize was not announced during the forum’s November, 2020, proceedings. News reports last month said Ottawa warned organizers of the Halifax forum that it would yank funding if the prize was given to Ms. Tsai, in a move that attributed to fear of offending the Chinese Communist Party.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government later denied it had tried to strong-arm the forum and said the group was free to make its own decisions about the award. The matter led the House of Commons to adopt a motion by unanimous consent saying Ms. Tsai was an ideal candidate for the prize.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa could not be immediately reached for comment but the Chinese government last month sharply criticized the parliamentary motion.

“Canada should recognize that the Taiwan question is highly sensitive [and] prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues and avoid further undermining bilateral relations,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

Ms. Tsai won re-election last year after campaigning on a promise to defend the island’s democracy and stand up to China. Beijing’s authoritarian rulers consider Taiwan a breakaway province despite the fact that 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.

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A video announcement released Monday night about the award notes Ms. Tsai is “arguably the most powerful female politician in the Chinese-speaking world.” It notes that under her tenure the territory was the first Asian jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriages. It also pays tribute to Taiwan’s success at fighting COVID-19; as of Monday only 12 people had died in the territory from the virus.

China has been taking steps to isolate Taiwan from the international community over the past half century and, in 2020, following Ms. Tsai’s re-election, ramped up patrols by warplanes into airspace around the island, tactics the Taiwanese government says are designed to exhaust its much smaller military.

In 2020, the People’s Liberation Army flew a record 380 sorties that entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, according to the Taipei-based Institute for National Defence and Security Research. Between Jan. 1 and April 30 of this year, there have been an estimated 280 sorties. Each foray by Chinese fighters or bombers requires Taiwan to send out its own jets.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told Britain’s Sky News in late April that Taipei had been forced to invest massively in its military as the threat of a Chinese invasion grows. He said that China “seems to be preparing for their final military assault against Taiwan.”

Mr. van Praagh said the Halifax forum prize will be presented in person to Ms. Tsai at an awards ceremony to be scheduled later.

Winston Chen, Taiwan’s top envoy to Canada, said the democracy of 24 million was “deeply honoured” to learn Ms. Tsai has been chosen for this award.

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“Taiwan remains a vanguard of democracy and a beacon for our shared values on the global stage. We remain committed to defending our democratic way of life even in the face of military threats, incursions, and other tactics employed by the People’s Republic of China,” Mr. Chen said.

Although Mr. Trudeau told the House of Commons last month that Ottawa would continue to fund the Halifax forum, he has remained silent on whether his government would officially endorse the awarding of the prize to Ms. Tsai.

Opposition critics said that Ottawa’s actions would be scrutinized.

“Our allies are closely watching to see whether or not the federal government is standing up for human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said.

NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said he does not expect the government to withdraw funding as a result of the award.

“It is not something that the government should interfere with in any way,” he said. “It’s a decision made by the institute itself and not the government and I believe the government should stay at arms’ length from it.”

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