Taiwan is central to Canada’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). Only five years ago, Canada’s Strong, Secure, Engaged Defence Policy heralded: “We will seek to develop stronger relationships with other countries in the region, particularly China.” The naïve hope that Canada could transform China by offering friendship is now replaced by the realistic appraisal of China as a disruptive global power.
The IPS raises concerns about clashes on the India-China border as well as escalating maritime tensions, including in the Taiwan Strait. The introduction to strategic challenges, focused on China, includes a stern reminder that “respect for the sovereignty of other states is a cornerstone of the rules-based international order.” The IPS mentions Taiwan several times, in recognition of its importance for peace, security, and economic prosperity.
The IPS raises concerns about clashes on the India-China border as well as escalating maritime tensions, including in the Taiwan Strait. The introduction to strategic challenges, focused on China, includes a stern reminder that “respect for the sovereignty of other states is a cornerstone of the rules-based international order.” The IPS mentions Taiwan several times in recognition of its importance for peace, security, and economic prosperity.
The Taiwan Strait Conundrum
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait began in 1949 when the Republic of China (ROC, a sovereign state and founding member of the United Nations) took refuge on Formosa (the main island of Taiwan) after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During two Taiwan Strait Crises in the 1950s, there was a risk that either side could spark a major confrontation through unilateral military action. Under Prime Minister Lester Pearson, Canada proposed an international regime with a cordon sanitaire in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, bilateral agreements between supportive member states, and a Canadian military presence. That plan was shelved. Still, Canada’s goal of contributing to cross-strait peace remained. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sought to ensure peace by recognizing the PRC and advocating for its full entry into the international order.
In 1970, Trudeau’s dilemma was that the two states on opposing sides of the Taiwan Strait were authoritarian regimes claiming to be the sole legitimate government of China. While governing only Taiwan, the ROC was still a member of the United Nations Security Council and, most importantly, supported by the United States. After the PRC achieved nuclear status in the 1960s, China’s continued exclusion from the international order became more dangerous. Canada hoped that diplomatic recognition of the PRC would integrate it into the international system as a good actor that would solve problems through negotiation rather than armed force in accordance with the UN Charter. China wanted Canada’s support to evict the ROC from international organizations and, eventually, from Taiwan. Canada hoped that the Taiwanese would someday exercise their right to self-determination. To establish diplomatic relations in spite of this disagreement, Canada developed a protocol in which China claims Taiwan. Still, Canada only “takes note,” meaning it would neither challenge nor endorse that claim. This formula became the foundation of Canada’s diplomatic relations with China and substantive relations with Taiwan.
Changes in Taiwan
Since the 1980s, the people of Taiwan transformed the ROC into a liberal democracy. The ROC no longer has designs for China and instead focuses on domestic issues. This has made Taiwan a leader on such issues as LGBTQ+ and Indigenous rights; and economically in key industries such as semiconductors. People-to-people and economic ties between Taiwan and Canada accelerated. The main reason that Canada and Taiwan do not establish formal diplomatic relations is for fear of retaliation from China. Canada still wants China to refrain from military action in the Taiwan Strait. China still wants Taiwan.
The IPS explicitly frames relations with Taiwan “while remaining consistent with our One China Policy.” It is important to clarify that Canada’s “One China Policy” remains distinct from the “One China Principle” that China pressures states to accept. Under Canada’s policy, there is wide scope for multifaceted engagement with Taiwan. The IPS affirms that “Canada will oppose unilateral actions that threaten the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.” Unlike the situation in the 1950s, the only state that threatens military aggression is China. Taiwan simply seeks to maintain the status quo.
Some analysts raise the spectre of a Taiwanese “declaration of independence” as a provocative unilateral act. This is a red herring. Since Taiwan has never been a part of the PRC, there is no more need for Taiwan to declare its independence vis-à-vis China than for Canada to declare independence from the USA. A minority of Taiwanese advocate independence from the ROC, as bewildering as that may seem to outsiders who perceive the ROC and Taiwan as coterminous, but the vast majority prefer some variant of the status quo. The ROC constitution makes it impossible for any elected president to simply declare independence; that option is extremely unpopular with Taiwanese voters.
In a context where Taiwan itself has not proposed formal diplomatic recognition, Canada’s IPS emphasizes people-to-people ties and collaboration on precise issues that benefit both countries. Two out of seven mentions of Taiwan in the document are about exchanges between Canadian and Taiwanese Indigenous peoples.
The Beauty of Resilience
Instead of sovereignty or independence, the realistic goal for Taiwan is resilience. The United States has led the way by including a “Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act” in its annual defence authorization legislation. Canada’s promise to support Taiwan’s resilience is consistent with US policy. Tellingly, the word “resilience” appears 21 times in the IPS.
Resilience may seem like an unsatisfactory second choice to some, notably Indigenous peoples who would prefer fuller recognition of their sovereignty. But resilience is increasingly used in diplomatic parlance; and has been defined by Canada with allies as a shared objective for democracies. The IPS adds Taiwan to that list of democratic partners. This approach resembles the notion of human security, once described by former Liberal Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy in Taipei as “an alternative way of seeing the world, taking people as the point of reference, rather than focussing exclusively on the security of territory or governments.”
Focusing on Taiwan’s social resilience rather than ROC state sovereignty reinforces Canada’s One China Policy as a gesture of peace. China’s reactions to such overtures, which come from Canada, Taiwan and other states, will be decisive for stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.