COMMENTARY: China’s actions will eventually bring Canada closer to Taiwan

Nobody is laughing much about China these days in Taiwan. Beijing regards the democratic island state as a renegade province and has vowed to use force, if necessary, to bring it under Beijing’s despotic rule.

So, it was a welcome change to read about the mirth that spread in Taiwan this week after photographs appeared there of billionaire heiress Meng Wanzhou wearing a surgical mask that clearly bore the words “Made in Taiwan” when she appeared at an extradition hearing in Vancouver. Anything carrying the words “Made in Taiwan” would be strictly banned in China today.

COMMENTARY: (June 7, 2020) Taiwan lends a hand to Canada as China turns its back

Meng, whose father founded the quasi-state telecom giant Huawei, is at the centre of a notorious diplomatic dispute between Beijing and Ottawa. A Canadian court is considering whether to accede to a U.S. demand to extradite Meng to the U.S. to face serious fraud and conspiracy charges.

China retaliated against Meng’s detention by kidnapping Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and imposing trade sanctions on some Canadian agricultural products. The Two Michaels have now been held under dire conditions in a Beijing jail for more than 660 days.

Although the Meng case is a long way from being resolved, China continues to push its luck with Canada. State media there declared this week that the country’s first home-built icebreaker, the Xue Long 2 (Snow Dragon), returned to Shanghai a few days ago. It has been on an epic journey from Antarctica to the Canada Basin and Beaufort Shelf, which are near the Canadian towns of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

Although Ottawa must have known about the presence of the Xue Long 2, which was surveying the sea bed adjacent to Canadian waters, the Trudeau government chose to not say anything about it publicly. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has spoken of a joint China-Russia maritime exercise that was conducted this summer in the Arctic Ocean.

To justify its intrusions into the Far North, China began claiming a few years ago that it was “a near Arctic state.” It has now made many journeys into the northern ocean, including a transit of Canada’s Northwest Passage several years ago that was sanctioned by the Trudeau government.

Whether its icebreakers, a shameless claim to almost all of the South China Sea, the gross mistreatment of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, a small war with India in the Himalayas, its constant probing of Japanese territory, or the hard suppression of free speech in Hong Kong, China is never far from the headlines today. This has been especially true in Canada. After public fury over a plan to raise the Chinese flag in Toronto to celebrate China’s national day while Beijing is still holding the two Michaels hostage, the Ford government scrapped the event at the last moment.

According to soundings of public opinion this summer, more than eight out of 10 Canadians believe their country should have less trade with China. Justin Trudeau’s government has been in such a quandary about what to do that it has said almost nothing. However, it has provided hints that it might finally stop its ardent pursuit of closer economic ties with China. It has also quietly sent a warship, the HMCS Winnipeg, to the western Pacific, where its first stop was at the U.S. navy base on Guam. The Winnipeg is to participate later this month with the US Navy and Japan’s self-defence force in an exercise in Japenese waters in the East China Sea, an area that is frequently probed by the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard.

With the current government mostly silent about Canada’s terrible relations with China, the conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, has taken advantage of that vacuum to speak several times about how differently he would handle relations with China if the Conservative Party forms the next federal government.

O’Toole has demanded that measures be taken to allow small Canadian businesses to lessen their dependency on China. He has also declared that any government he led would take the threat posed by China’s military much more seriously, limit Chinese investments in Canada and ban Huawei from doing any 5G cellphone system work here.

Something to watch closely is how relations between Beijing and Washington continue to worsen. China sent fighter jets and bombers closer to Taiwan than ever before last week. It boasted that such exercises were proof that it could quickly overwhelm its much smaller neighbour any time it wanted to.

For its part, the Pentagon has upped aerial surveillance and sent multiple groups of warships through the Strait of Taiwan this year. It topped that recently by flying several waves of USAF bombers and fighter jets to the South China Sea, where they conducted joint exercises with two U.S. navy carrier battle groups.

Signalling how fed up Washington has become with China’s bullying and the specific threats it has made against Taiwan, it is selling $18 billion of gear to Taiwan that includes drones, sea mines and missiles. As was argued in an article on the War on the Rocks website this week, no amount of money spent on the defence of Taiwan would be enough to stop China if it chose to attack.

Several U.S. military publications, including War on the Rocks, have floated the idea that the U.S. should rotate marine and army units through Taiwan. Such a move would infuriate China but reassure not only the Taiwanese but also the Japanese and South Koreans, who rightly fear having to trade on Beijing’s terms if it seizes Taiwan and controls the busy shipping lane through the Strait of Taiwan and access to the Yellow Sea, which lies just to the north.

The predicament of the two Michaels and Meng has paralyzed Ottawa for more than 20 months. That has mostly left Canada a bystander as the larger China drama has been rapidly unfolding. It is possible that at some point the Canadian Armed Forces will be compelled to become a modest part of a robust plan with allies to defend Taiwan.

This is not something that was seriously contemplated by any Canadians until recently and is still not being considered by the Trudeau government. But the world is changing. Canada has already been caught up in the storm that has been growing in the Indo-Pacific and will inevitably have to watch its back in the Arctic, too.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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