You would think the choice would be a straightforward one. Should Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government persist in its headlong rush to deepen Canada’s ties with the increasingly grotesque and globally menacing police state in Beijing? Or should Canada instead strengthen its relationships with the flourishing and economically vibrant liberal democracy in Taiwan?
For nearly half a century, China’s Communist Party overlords have been telling us we can’t have it both ways, and we must choose in Beijing’s favour. Canadian foreign affairs mandarins and their friends in the Canada-China business lobby have been telling us the same thing: that we have no choice but to do as we’re told. And so we do. But lately, Chinese President Xi Jinping has emerged as an existential threat to Taiwan, while simultaneously revealing himself to be the greatest threat to the rules-based international order that the Trudeau government insists Canada must defend at all costs.
In all its dealings with China, Canada’s posture is uniquely supine among the G7 countries, but Xi’s wildly ambitious belligerence worldwide has made a hardheaded re-evaluation of Canada’s approach unavoidable. This would have been necessary without even figuring Taiwan into it, but there is an urgency that informs Canada’s predicament now.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland can’t be taken seriously as she rallies liberal democracies to unite against the dire threats of rising authoritarian unilateralism while at the same time doing nothing about Beijing’s accelerated military and economic encirclement of Taiwan. When Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen addressed a seminar at the European Parliament on Monday, it could have been Freeland talking: “A liberal democratic order can only survive if like-minded countries, including our European partners, work together for the greater good,” Tsai said.
“I’m calling on all like-minded countries to display the same spirit that led to the founding of a union across Europe in 1951: the clear-eyed sense that only by coming together can we protect our values and our future.”
But to get out from underneath the absurd restraints that have dictated our relationship with Taiwan ever since Canada opened diplomatic relations with the Chinese Communist Party regime in 1970, we’re all going to have to confront some of the prettiest lies we have been telling ourselves about Canada’s place on “the world stage” and about how we got there. This is where Eric Lerhe, the former director of NATO policy at the National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, enters the conversation.
In an extensive paper to be released this week by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Lerhe proposes a series of modest contributions Canada might make to Taiwan’s security — particularly in collaboration with Japan, France, Germany, the United States, New Zealand and Australia — and also to more securely guarantee Taiwan’s place as a key trading partner in the Pacific region. “But first, Ottawa needs to be prepared to challenge some of the sacred shibboleths in how it has approached China and Taiwan,” Lerhe writes.
One thing to get out of the way is the legend that it was the bright idea of the visionary Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau to break with the Cold War consensus of the day and defy the stubborn bellicosity of Richard Nixon’s White House in a brilliant diplomatic move that paved the way for the People’s Republic of China to take its place at the United Nations.
More accurately, it was at least as much Beijing’s idea, setting the favourable terms of its diplomatic entente with Canada as a Taiwan-isolating precedent for other countries to follow. Besides, then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had already been secretly negotiating with Beijing to establish diplomatic relations, a year before Trudeau came along. There was also the grubbier involvement of the Canadian Wheat Board, with its eyes on China’s voracious appetite for Canada’s grain.
In any case, Canada’s allegedly deft stickhandling of the Taiwan issue did not decisively address the conundrum, which was a Taiwan that was at the time governed by a military dictatorship born of the old Republic of China that still claimed sovereignty over mainland China, while the Communist People’s Republic of China at the same time claimed Taiwan as a mere renegade province.
Canada’s resulting “One China” policy took note of Beijing’s claims, and on Oct. 12, 1970, Taiwan’s ambassador was given a month to clear out of the Ottawa embassy and shutter the Vancouver consulate. All these years later, Global Affairs Canada still considers Taiwan part of “Greater China.”
“Doing nothing to defend a threatened democracy signals that Canada, a fellow middle power, is also ready to, however briefly, cease defending the rules-based international order that has protected it and allowed it to prosper these last seventy years.”
Beijing was moving forwards in 1970 — now it’s going backwards, deeper into police-state dystopia. Taiwan, meanwhile, has made extraordinary democratic leaps and bounds forward.
Lerhe puts forward several recommendations that Beijing would shout about, but which would nonetheless not breach the commitments Canada made in 1970. Canada should fight for Taiwan’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, for instance. Lerhe’s other proposed measures include fighting for Taiwan’s place at a variety of international agencies that Beijing has managed to keep off-limits to Taiwanese representatives, joining U.S.-supported intelligence efforts or replicating Japan’s intelligence-sharing arrangements with Taiwan, assigning a full-time security liaison officer or military attaché to Canada’s trade office in Taipei, and so on.
It’s mostly small stuff, but it adds up.
“Doing nothing to defend a threatened democracy signals that Canada, a fellow middle power, is also ready to, however briefly, cease defending the rules-based international order that has protected it and allowed it to prosper these last seventy years,” Lerhe writes.
It also signals that Canada is a wholly unserious champion of the values it claims to cherish most dearly.