Canada doesn’t have much leverage when it comes to the release of Canadian citizens detained in China, but one way of influencing Beijing may be lending diplomatic support to Taiwan.
Since Canada recognized the People’s Republic of China nearly 50 years ago, it has had no official relationship with Taiwan due to the “one China” policy. Officially, Canada “takes note” of China’s claim to Taiwan without endorsing or challenging it.
But strains in the relationship with Xi Jinping’s regime over the arbitrary detention of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have led to calls for a relaxation of the one China policy.
An opportunity to do that has presented itself at the triennial assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, being held at its Montreal headquarters at the end of September.
Taiwan is seeking an invitation as a guest or observer, making the not unreasonable point that aviation safety transcends national borders and that Taipei hosted 1.6 million flights and 66 million travellers in 2017.
Taiwan was invited to the 2013 assembly but, under political pressure from China, the invitation was not extended three years later.
The ICAO’s rules of procedure state non-member states can be invited to attend as observers by the assembly of 193 countries, which would require a vote and presumably a country willing to champion Taiwan’s case.
Winston Wen-yi Chen, representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Ottawa — effectively he is the Taiwanese ambassador, though he is not recognized as such — said Canada could make a political point by inviting Taiwan as a guest.
Canadian support would be in line with a communiqué global affairs minister Chrystia Freeland signed at April’s meeting of G7 foreign ministers, which said excluding some members for political purposes compromises aviation safety and security. One diplomatic source said Canada has advocated for Taiwanese participation in the past and will continue to do so.
It may seem a triviality but few things make Beijing bristle like lending legitimacy to the Taiwanese government. China has made it clear it considers any move from Taiwan to declare itself a distinct country to be cause for war.
As relations between China and the U.S. have deteriorated in recent months, tensions over the island have heightened.
The U.S. doesn’t recognize Taiwan officially but is its largest arms supplier. Last week, the State Department approved US $2.2 billion of arms sales to Taiwan, including battle tanks and anti-aircraft missiles.
When Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen was in New York this week, fights between supporters and opponents erupted outside her hotel. Even allowing Tsai to transit through the U.S. on her way to visit several Caribbean states that still formally recognize Taiwan was something Beijing deemed an unacceptable platform for Taiwanese independence.
Despite the constant Chinese muscle-flexing, Taipei’s man in Ottawa says democracy in Taiwan has flourished.
Twenty-three million people are crammed in a space not much larger than Vancouver Island. They have carved out a dynamic capitalist economy, focused on electronics and machinery.
“Some people say it’s a miracle we have built a powerhouse,” said Chen. “But it’s not a miracle, it’s common sense. We have highly disciplined people in pursuit of a high quality life as free men.”
Chen’s task in Ottawa is to push for Canadian support for an investment promotion and protection agreement, at the same time as seeking support for Taiwanese entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, of which Canada is already a member.
“I think the message I am getting is quite positive,” he said.
Chen said trade ties to Canada are already significant — a bilateral relationship worth $8 billion last year — and pointed to deals such as Northland Power’s multi-billion dollar investment in green infrastructure on the island.
Taiwan is a beacon of tolerance in a tough neighbourhood. It recently passed same-sex marriage legislation and 16 Indigenous tribes have representation in its parliament. Canadians share many values with the Taiwanese and it is time to relax the one China policy.
The Liberal government is loath to link improved ties with Taiwan to the detainees.
Canada should be supporting the island’s progress on principle.
But when doing so sends the message to Beijing that Canada should not be treated with impunity, it would be a mistake not to.