David Mulroney was executive director of the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei from 1998-2001, and Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009-12.
To the extent that Canadians worry about security in East Asia, they look north, to the Korean peninsula, or south, to where China is building a formidable militarized zone on rocks and shoals thousands of kilometres from its coast. But the region’s most dangerous hot spot lies between these two, around Taiwan, an island that China is stepping up long-standing efforts to reclaim, a campaign that could bring it into direct conflict with Taiwan’s sole defender, the United States.
Sensing opportunity in the policy confusion of the Trump era, China’s President Xi Jinping is increasing efforts to eliminate the space available to Taiwan internationally, pressuring other countries, multilateral institutions and global corporations to fall in line. Chinese military exercises off Taiwan have become more frequent and more threatening.
Reverberations from this campaign have recently been felt in Canada.
In May, Chinese social media, which typically echoes Mr. Xi’s nationalistic tone, erupted in response to images of T-shirts bearing the map of China, allegedly sold at a Gap outlet in Canada. The problem: The map didn’t include the island of Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory. Gap immediately apologized and promised an investigation.
At roughly the same time, Air Canada followed many other global air carriers in acquiescing to China’s demand that Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, be listed as a Chinese destination. China’s embassy in Ottawa applauded the move as being consistent with the “one-China Principle.”
Actually, it was anything but.
Far from being a capitulation, the one-China Policy, as originally understood, represented Canadian diplomacy at its best. In 1970, as we were exploring establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the issue of how to deal with Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in Taiwan, which claimed to represent the “Republic of China,” was a serious impediment. Rather than agreeing that Taiwan was part of the “one China” that the communists controlled on the mainland, Canadian negotiators simply “took note” of the PRC’s position. That face-saving compromise paved the way for China to establish diplomatic relations with Canada and the many other countries that have since adopted our formula.
Better still, the compromise was sufficiently ambiguous to allow productive unofficial links with Taiwan, so long as these did not undermine our official recognition of the PRC.
Taiwan has become steadily more interesting as a partner, not simply because its economy has grown spectacularly, but also because its people have embraced democracy, and with it many policies that Canadians applaud, such as protecting the environment, advancing women’s rights and respecting the history and culture of Taiwan’s own Indigenous peoples.
The Taiwanese are understandably ambivalent about their giant neighbour. While they seek peace and prosperity, they have no desire to surrender their autonomy and democratic status. Mindful that China would respond militarily to any effort by Taiwan to drop the pretense of its China connection and declare itself an independent state, leaders on the island accept a degree of ambiguity that has, until recently, allowed them to interact productively with the wider world.
China’s current bluster and bullying aims to change the status quo, discouraging Taiwan’s partners from the kind of engagement that the one-China policy previously accommodated. China’s red lines about Taiwan independence are real, but Canada, like many other countries, now avoids any contact with Taiwan, which is exactly what Mr. Xi wants.
That’s a lost opportunity, because exchanges in areas such as trade, education and culture are within bounds, as is dialogue on the human rights central to the progressive agenda that Prime Minster Justin Trudeau champions in places such as, well, China. And if our foreign policy is, as the government boasts, truly feminist, shouldn’t we offer some support to Taiwan’s beleaguered President Tsai Ing-wen, a woman who is courageously defending values we share?
None of this is easy. It requires a carefully calibrated policy, with an eye to very real risks, and close collaboration with our allies. But showing China that it isn’t just the United States that respects Taiwan’s democracy makes this issue about something more than Sino-American strategic rivalry. And carefully challenging the current campaign of intimidation would nicely complement a China strategy that reflects our values as well as our interests.
This is about more than maps and T-shirts.