As Canada begins a public inquiry on foreign interference this week, the behaviour of China’s diplomats may come into the spotlight in ways that Canada’s Ambassador to China Jennifer May describes as “deeply uncomfortable.” Just a fortnight after Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections, Chinese interference in people-to-people relations with Taiwan constitutes unwelcome foreign interference. How does Chinese interference in Canada and elsewhere narrow Taiwan’s international space? What can be done about it?
China’s Three Core Principles
China has foregrounded Taiwan in its three organizing principles of relations with Canada, as seen in China’s readout of phone talks between Foreign Ministers Wang Yi and Melanie Joly on January 11, 2024. Wang clearly restated the three-point proposal made in 2022. They are not really principles agreed upon by both sides, but rather China’s unilateral demands.
China’s first demand is “correct cognition.” Wang even argued: “the root cause of the downturn of China-Canada relations in recent years is the serious deviation of the Canadian side’s perception of China.” China is likely to be frustrated about Canada’s foreign interference hearings. Canadians are not likely to improve their perception of China; and, in a democratic society, it is not possible for government to impose versions of correctness on the population or Parliament.
China’s second demand, “mutual respect,” is not respect for difference, but rather a stern command. China requests Canada: “to earnestly implement its commitment to the one-China policy, preserve the political foundation of China-Canada relations, and not send any wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.” In fact, there is no singular “one-China policy,” as the definite article “the” suggests. Rather, each state developed its own approach depending on particular interests and historical contexts. Weldon Epp, Director General for North Asia at Global Affairs, explained to Parliament in 2022 that Canada’s position is “noting the Chinese government’s position on Taiwan, but not endorsing or challenging it.” China does not respect Canada’s long-standing Taiwan policy, even though China’s negotiators tolerated it in 1970.
China’s third demand is “win-win cooperation,” that “China and Canada should jointly oppose the politicization and pan-security of economic issues.” This could be a thinly-veiled response to Canadian sanctions leveled in response to systemic human rights violations in Xinjiang. Parliament in 2021 passed a motion recognizing that China is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities. Canada has already decided that economic issues are inseparable from issues of human rights and, similar to China’s own long-standing practices, with national security. Hopefully, Canada will never have to impose sanctions on China because of violence toward Taiwan.
The World Congratulations Taiwan
After Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections on January 13, democratic countries congratulated Taiwan. Canada posted on X that “Canada congratulates the people of #Taiwan on the conclusion of their recent elections. Guided by the pillars of #democracy, #humanrights & #peace, Canada looks forward to advance its people-to-people, science, trade & investment ties.” China’s Embassy immediately rebuked Canada for violating “the one-China principle,” meddling in “China’s internal affairs,” and sending wrong signals to separatist forces. China apparently interpreted Canada’s Tweet as both incorrect cognition and violation of mutual respect. China must protest. Problems occur only when China convinces Canadians to lobby for them or target activists.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan were all much bolder. Whereas Canada sent a Tweet, these countries published congratulations on the official websites of their foreign ministries. Unlike Canada, they all named the presidential winner Lai Ching-te and his office. Japan called Taiwan “an extremely crucial partner and an important friend, with which it shares fundamental values.” They know that open support for Taiwan is a way to keep peace. Canada’s low-key approach is consistent with its 1970 commitment to not challenge China’s position. Yet, Canada’s timidity still did not gain the approval of China. China is disrupting the status quo of Taiwanese democracy. It does not hesitate to interfere in the relations of sovereign states with Taiwan to obtain its goal of annexing Taiwan by coercion.
Diplomacy and Deterrence
The most recent Chinese move was to entice tiny Nauru to switch diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic. The full names of the states are not mere diplomatic parlance. Under the “one China” notion, each state decides which side it recognizes as the sole legitimate government of China. The Constitution implemented in Taiwan still refers to the Republic of China’s territorial integrity, albeit with a “free area” and a “mainland.” There is no political appetite in Taiwan to revise the Constitution, which would constitute a risky declaration of independence. No state has ever recognized Taiwan as Taiwan.
China is poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic partners with only one goal: creating legal cover for an invasion or other violent act toward Taiwan. They want other states to hesitate while they debate about whether it is an invasion (which warrants an international response) or a local police action (which brooks no external interference).
Canada’s utmost interest is to preserve peace in the Western Pacific, but China is signaling dark intentions. This year, Taiwan’s military has already detected 266 military aircraft and 116 naval vessels that entered Taiwan’s ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) or crossed the median line that has secured peace between the two sides since the 1950s. Because of Chinese belligerence in both diplomatic and military realms, democratic countries are reminding China that war is unacceptable. Royal Canadian Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait, which happen with US forces, already signal that these are international waters and that the future of Taiwan is an international issue. Minister Joly has probably conveyed that message clearly to her counterpart in Beijing.
China is poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic partners with only one goal: creating legal cover for an invasion or other violent act toward Taiwan.
Concern about foreign interference means that Canada cannot let China dictate the people-to-people relations with Taiwan that have flourished under Canada’s One-China policy. Canada’s most important allies openly congratulated president-elect Lai to signal to China that they support Taiwan and expect a peaceful solution. For Canada to effectively join its allies and deter war in the region, Canada must remain vigilant about Chinese interference in Canada-Taiwan relations.