By J. Michael Cole, September 8, 2022
According to recent news reports, a delegation of eight Canadian MPs and senators from the Canada-Taiwan Friendship Group and a parliamentary trade committee are planning to visit Taiwan as early as October. Although such visits are not unusual, this time around the announcement has attracted more attention than usual. This is largely due to China’s disproportionate reaction to a brief visit, earlier this month, by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which “compelled” Beijing to launch a series of large-scale live-fire military exercises around Taiwan.
This context has not escaped Ottawa’s attention. After Judy Sgro, who chairs the Canada-Taiwan Friendship Group, revealed plans for the visit to Taiwan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that the potential consequences of such a visit should be taken into account. “We will ensure that the parliamentarians making the decision to travel or not,” he said, “will be done with all the reflections of the consequences and the impacts of it.”
To his credit, Trudeau emphasized that members of parliament make their own decisions about the travel they undertake, in the same way that the White House cannot tell US members of Congress where and when they can travel abroad. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has also rightly emphasized the independence of parliamentary associations and friendship groups.
Also to his credit, Trudeau described Beijing’s reaction to such visits—particularly its highly destabilizing manoeuvres and economic sanctions over the Pelosi visit—as both “belligerent” and “troubling.”
Yet, talk about potential “consequences” signals that Beijing, through its belligerence, has succeeded in changing how our government—and MPs—calculate our engagement with a fellow democracy. Take, for example, remarks by Randy Hoback, a Conservative MP and committee vice-chair who has visited Taiwan before as part of the friendship group. “There’s no intent on my part to antagonize China,” he said, adding that he would consult with Global Affairs Canada before deciding whether to embark on the trip or not.
This, worryingly, suggests that our MPs are being conditioned by Beijing. Why would a visit that is perfectly legitimate under Canada’s longstanding “one China” policy, and similar to those that have occurred without trouble in the past, now be potentially “antagonizing” to China? Ottawa’s policy with regards to Taiwan and China is agnostic (it “takes note” of Beijing’s contention that there is only “one China” of which Taiwan is an indivisible part) and has long promoted trade, cultural and other ties with the democratic island-nation, of which legislative exchanges have been a perennial feature.
We are now at risk of letting Beijing’s excessive belligerence dictate the nature and extent of our relationship with Taiwan, to chip away at practices that had hitherto been regarded as perfectly acceptable. In other words, Beijing’s escalatory behaviour has assaulted the very “status quo” that buttresses Canada’s policy vis-à-vis Taiwan. If, through risk avoidance, we give Beijing what it wants and suspend these interactions with Taiwan, we can be certain that the Chinese authorities will do even more to constrain our room to manoeuvre.
Beijing’s highly disruptive response to the Pelosi visit upended the “status quo,” and it is in the interest of all—Canada included—that some balance be brought back to the situation. This, above all, includes actions on our part that reaffirm our commitment to the “status quo,” a commitment that includes the resumption of legislative visits (which other countries, such as the UK, Germany and others are currently planning), as well as safe passage transits in the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, Beijing is trying to change the rules in the Taiwan Strait and we need to signal our determination not to be deterred in supporting democracies in their hour of need. Conversely, if we send signals of weakness (and unfortunately the public remarks by both PM Trudeau and MP Hoback can be interpreted as such), then we will only give Beijing further ammunition to scare us into passivity.
Most assuredly, the point is not for Canada to go out of its way to alienate Beijing, or to engage in activities that will only end up hurting Canada’s interests and, possibly, those of Taiwan. However, what we should not countenance are attempts by China to redefine what has been, and still is, a legitimate expression of Canada’s commitment to the rule of law and support for democracy. Just as unacceptable would be to let fear and avoidance determine our policy. The visit to Taiwan should take place. And when it does, the sky will not fall.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Global Taiwan Institute, as well as senior advisor on Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence (CFAI) with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.