If Putin’s largely unanticipated invasion of Ukraine shocked the Western world, Canada and the international community should be vigilant, and prepare for another threat to democracy on its Eastern flank—an attack by China on Taiwan.
This is not an impossible scenario given that China, which has always considered Taiwan a renegade province to be brought back by force to its rightful motherland, has clearly indicated its support of Putin, a like-minded leader with expansionist ambitions. The National Post reported on February 4 that Xi Jinping and Putin met on the sidelines of the winter Olympics and “closed ranks against the US and its allies on key security issues” and that “Russia endorsed China’s policy on Taiwan and opposed Taiwanese independence in any form.” The Russia-China alliance was further strengthened in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. In a joint declaration with China in February 2022, Russia reaffirmed its support of the one China principle, calling Taiwan an inalienable part of China, and opposing any forms of independence for Taiwan.
Shortly after Putin’s “special military operation” began, Major General Mike Wright, head of Canada’s Military intelligence branch told the House of Commons Defence Committee that a military alliance that includes Canada was very concerned about the possibility of China taking the opportunity to make good on its own plans to gain greater control of territories abroad, specifically Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric from China with regard to Taiwan remains as uncompromising as ever.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, dismissed comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan, stating unequivocally that “Taiwan is not Ukraine,” and that “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.”
The rhetoric has been reinforced by military provocations that constantly threaten Taiwan. The Guardian reported that on January 23, 2022, the Chinese PLA flew 39 warplanes to Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, the largest such incursion this year. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence had ordered its own air force to monitor the activity.
Maneuvers to exclude Taiwan from important international fora and to punish countries like Lithuania that defy the “one China principle”—Beijing’s weapon of choice in its diplomatic arsenal—have also become increasingly noticeable. China imposed de facto trade embargoes on this tiny Baltic country for allowing Taiwan to open a diplomatic office in its capital, Vilnius, last November.
At this critical juncture in the battle between democracy and dictatorship now being played out in Eastern Europe, it is more important than ever for Canada and its allies to pay heed to US President Joe Biden’s message that “democracy needs champions” and to take seriously the possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
A military invasion of Taiwan by China would cause an even more serious global crisis, and Taiwan’s annexation by Beijing would represent a direct attack on the free world.
Short of outright recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state in its own right, which would be anathema and needlessly provocative to Beijing, there are many ways in which Canada can take meaningful action to pre-empt such an attack and support Taiwan as a champion of democracy and human dignity- attributes that stand in sharp contrast to China’s authoritarianism and human rights abuses.
A visit to Taiwan by a delegation of former but high-profile Canadian officials — diplomats, politicians and military leaders with strong track records of supporting Taiwan – would be a good starting point. Biden had dispatched a similar delegation shortly after the outbreak of the Ukraine war.
On the diplomatic front, Canada can take the lead to coordinate an intensive campaign in partnership with the US and European partners to facilitate Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international fora.
Canada and Taiwan recently agreed to launch preliminary discussions toward concluding a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA). Global Affairs Canada should make every effort to expedite this. It is in Canada’s interests to circumvent China’s objections and accelerate this process, because Taiwan is one of the leading producers of semiconductors that are so essential in most electronic products today. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the country’s leading producer of semiconductors, already has a facility in Ottawa and is looking to expand its operations.
In addition, supporting Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) can help Canada secure a free trade agreement with Taiwan without having to negotiate with it bilaterally. This would allay any fears that China would retaliate against Canada directly.
The importance of sending the right signals to Beijing vis-à-vis Taiwan cannot be overestimated. The stakes are high for the free world. If Taiwan collapses under the weight of China’s expansionist ambitions, it would be an irreversible setback to the rules-based international order and global democracy.