On the Fence: Canada’s Role in the Western Pacific Through An Election Lens

On the Fence: Canada’s Role in the Western Pacific Through An Election Lens

Canada’s election, in the 70th anniversary year of the conclusion of World War II, should be a time to ponder Canada’s role in the Western Pacific. Most pressing is the challenge of how Canada should respond to China’s increasingly ambitious territorial claims.

China’s leaders exposed their aspirations on September 3 by marking the anniversary of Japan’s surrender with a military parade displaying improved missiles, tanks and jets, along with 12,000 troops. Some 30 heads of state, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, attended in person, but Western leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, chose to send ambassadors or former leaders instead. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed in Tokyo. Former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, known for apologizing for wartime atrocities, was present.

China fought the war longer than the Western allies, fighting Japan from 1937 to 1945. Most Chinese casualties were among Nationalist troops, but their government, the Republic of China (ROC), lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan after 1949 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded. The Communists, more concerned with taking power from the Nationalists, fought less against the Japanese and suffered fewer wartime casualties. The veracity of Beijing’s historical narrative is debatable, but that is not the main point.

Sitting on the fence…may prove inadequate if China’s military ever moves from rhetoric to action in terms of territorial claims outside its present jurisdiction.

Canadian journalist and China specialist J. Michael Cole expressed concern about the commemorations as an expression of Chinese militarism. Chinese television viewers watching the spectacle were subjected to commentaries justifying military enforcement of China’s territorial claims from Taiwan to the South China Sea. Chinese viewers are accustomed to belligerent rhetoric, as broadcasts constantly evoke the “U.S.-Japan” axis and boast Chinese ability to take on American and Japanese forces. A few weeks ago, state-owned CCTV showed a simulation of Chinese soldiers attacking a building that looked remarkably like Taipei’s presidential palace. Chinese actions and rhetoric make it clear that China is preparing for possible conflict with Japan and the United States.

China poses new challenges to each generation. In 1970, when Pierre Trudeau made Canada one of the first Western countries to recognize the PRC, it was necessary to stop pretending that the ROC could represent “China” from Taipei and to recognize the Mainland government. After economic reform and PRC entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, it was important to promote Canadian business interests. The challenge now is to recognize the risks of Chinese militarism and irredentism – the nationalist urge to regain territory they feel was unjustly lost. China’s neighbours are concerned about their ability to protect current territorial boundaries, and hope the world will support them.

Deterring Chinese territorial ambitions means nourishing a strong relationship with Japan. It also means maintaining substantive relations with Taiwan, which the ROC has administered since 1945. Beijing and Taipei have drawn closer economically, but there has been backlash from Taiwanese citizens concerned with political sovereignty. When Lien Chan, former ROC vice-president, attended Beijing’s September 3 parade in a private capacity, President Ma Ying-jeou seemed obliged to publicly repudiate him. Taiwan will hold presidential elections in January, 2016. No matter who gets elected, there is no public approval of annexation by the PRC. In fact, opposing parties present themselves as most capable of preventing that scenario. The ROC is an independent, sovereign state with effective jurisdiction limited to Taiwan, which means the island retains links to a larger, symbolic “China,” but has never been ruled by the PRC. These facts will not change simply by being ignored. The world needs to make it clear, as the United States has done with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, that unilateral action to change the status quo is unacceptable.

Which Canadian leader can best deal with these challenges? On Japan, Harper signed the 2010 “Canada-Japan Joint Declaration on Political, Peace and Security Cooperation,” which increased cooperation between Canadian Forces and Japanese Self-Defense Forces. There have been high-level visits, including that of their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan to Canada in 2009. In 2012, Canada and Japan began negotiations on an Economic Partnership Agreement. Harper’s government improved relations with Taiwan, Canada’s 13th largest trading partner, by negotiating visa-free entry for citizens from each country to visit the other. Harper’s 2006 statement that Taiwan is “an integral part of China,” although it deviated from Canada’s long-standing policy to neither endorse nor challenge China’s claims, may have given Canadian diplomats sufficient lee-way to pursue relations with Taiwan without upsetting Beijing. As for China, Harper’s government concluded a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) and a supplement to the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement facilitating exports of Canadian uranium to China. Harper also permitted the sale of tar sands properties to state-run Chinese conglomerates. His policies arguably threaten Canada’s environment while literally fueling Chinese military capacity.

Justin Trudeau, who lives in the historical shadow of his father, is known for clumsily praising China because “their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime.” It is not far-fetched to speculate that, if Trudeau were Prime Minister, he may have taken a VIP seat in Beijing on September 3. Thomas Mulcair, in 2012, said he would reverse FIPA if he formed a government, because it threatens provincial powers and Canadian sovereignty. He should note that Japan is already Canada’s largest bilateral foreign direct investment partner, and that tens of thousands of Canadians work for Japanese companies in Canada. As Japan reinforces our manufacturing capacity, China undermines it by competing with low wages and weak environmental protection. A close investment relationship with Japan, combined with policies that decrease Chinese manufacturing imports, would benefit Canadian labour. Neither candidate has taken a public position on Taiwan.

No matter who wins the election, Canada’s next government is unlikely to provide new thinking on security in the Western Pacific. Canada will probably muddle through by trying to please both China and Japan, while pursuing economic and cultural ties with Taiwan as discreetly as possible. Sitting on the fence seems to have been a fairly innocuous strategy so far, but it may prove inadequate if China’s military ever moves from rhetoric to action in terms of territorial claims outside its present jurisdiction.

Related event: Recalling ROC’s Role in WWⅡ: New Perspectives on the End of the Second World War

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