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Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, center, in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan on April 13, 2021.

Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

Two U.S. senators – one Democrat and one Republican – have written Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to say they back the idea of a Canadian-government-funded defence conference awarding its most prestigious annual prize to Taiwan’s beleaguered President.

The Halifax International Security Forum has still not awarded its 2020 John McCain Prize for Leadership in the Public Service, even though nearly six months have elapsed since the conference ended. It gets about half its funding from the federal Department of National Defence.

The minority Liberal government found itself on the defensive in April on the issue. News reports from Washington said Ottawa warned organizers of the Halifax forum in November, 2020, that it would yank funding should this prize be given to President Tsai Ing-wen, a move that Politico.com attributed to fear of offending the Chinese Communist Party.

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Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province despite the fact that the Chinese Communist Party, which took power in 1949, has never ruled the island. China has been taking steps to isolate Taiwan from the international community over the past 50 years. Ms. Tsai was re-elected by a landslide last year on a promise of defending the island’s democracy and standing up to China.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and his Republican counterpart James Inhofe wrote to Mr. Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan this week saying they had been concerned over reports that Canada considered withholding support for the forum “due to pressure from Beijing.”

They also lauded the House of Commons for adopting a motion – after the controversy over the award – that said Ms. Tsai is a “strong global advocate for democracy” and an ideal candidate for the McCain award.

Mr. Sajjan has since denied that he warned the forum against recognizing Ms. Tsai. And he has said the organization, which is based in Washington, is free to make its own decisions over awards.

The two senators told Mr. Trudeau that Ms. Tsai deserves the award. The John McCain prize, they said, is for “individuals from any country who have demonstrated uncommon leadership in the pursuit of human justice.” And Taiwan’s leader fits the bill, the senators said. “Since her election in 2016, President Tsai continues to promote democratic values in the face of Chinese aggression.”

The Americans said it makes sense that China would oppose such an award. “China desperately wants to prevent Taiwan from gaining recognition as a democratic success.”

Beijing has increasingly deployed warplanes into airspace around Taiwan, tactics that the self-governing territory 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.

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In 2021, the pace has increased. Between Jan. 1 and April 30 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 top envoy in Canada, Winston Chen, said Taipei would be honoured if the Halifax forum selected Ms. Tsai as the winner.

“While the award’s winner has yet to be announced, we welcome the fact that Canada’s House of Commons recently passed a motion to recognize President Tsai Ing-wen is a perfect candidate for the John McCain prize,” Mr. Chen said.

Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong said he would like to see Ottawa voice its support for Ms. Tsai. “It’s clear that our allies are closely watching to see whether the Trudeau government is standing up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Taiwan, a democracy with a population roughly the size of Australia, is particularly suited to the progressive outlook of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government. Taiwan was the first Asian jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriages. It has embarked on major reconciliation efforts with its significant Indigenous population. It has a transgender cabinet minister.

Robin Shepherd, vice-president of the Halifax forum, said the organization expects to make an announcement on the McCain prize in the coming days.

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“We are gratified and reassured that American political leaders from both parties share this view. Together with the unanimous support from the House of Commons recently, the message of support for President Tsai being an ideal fit for this award is clear.”

Asked for comment on the senators’ letter, Todd Lane, director of communications for Mr. Sajjan, said Canada wants deeper ties with Taiwan.

“Canada continues to have strong and growing trade and people-to-people ties with Taiwan. We are committed to deepening these ties based on shared values and a large diaspora.”

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