Ministers, parliamentarians at Taiwan event anger China
by Chelsea Nash (feat. Hugh Stephens)
The Hill Times
April 20, 2016
The Chinese Embassy has blasted Canadian parliamentarians and cabinet ministers for attending a dinner reception last week held by Taiwanese authorities, noting that “This is inconsistent with the new Liberal government statement on strengthening Canada-China relations.”
At a time when Canada is trying to build economic and cultural ties with China, toward a possible free trade deal, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Counsellor Yang Yundong said “We express our strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to the speeches by a couple cabinet ministers—Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre, Alta.) and Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote (Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, Nfld.)—and the presence of dozens of parliamentarians at the annual Taiwan Night event on April 13.
Two longtime Liberal Members of Parliament, Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre, B.C.) and Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.), called Taiwan a country, which could be interpreted as flouting Canada’s longstanding “one-China policy.”
The evening of entertainment, food, and 16 speeches by past and current politicians was hosted by the Taipei Economic and Culture Office in Canada, which represents Taiwanese authorities but is not considered an embassy because Canada and Taiwan have no official diplomatic relations.
“The presence and speeches of Liberal government ministers at the Taiwan Night 2016…is a serious breach of Canada’s repeated commitment to the one-China policy,” wrote the counsellor in an emailed response to The Hill Times‘ request for comment. “Moreover it sends out a negative and misleading message.”
China considers Taiwan to be “an inalienable part of the Chinese territory,” he said. But Taiwan calls itself the Republic of China and wants to be recognized internationally as a sovereign state.
Since 1970, the government of Canada has had a “one-China policy” in which it recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legitimate government of China,” according to a statement from Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Rachna Mishra.
“Canada takes note but does not endorse or challenge China’s claims on Taiwan,” she said. “Although Canada does not have official relations with Taiwan, we maintain valuable economic and people-to-people ties with Taiwan.”
The Prime Minister’s Office passed a request for comment to the foreign ministry.
The embassy spokesperson said it had “already made solemn representations to the Canadian side,” though he did not respond to requests for further clarification of what this meant.
Other MPs praised Taiwan for what they said were its strong democratic values.
Ms. Fry called Taiwan a country several times in a short speech. She said Taiwan is “a country of creative, innovative people, highly educated people, and we were very lucky to be there during the election and to see how democratic systems can work well in Taiwan. Those are the values we share.” The general election Ms. Fry witnessed in January saw the end of a government that had overseen improved ties with China, which was replaced by an independence-minded party.
“Taiwan is a country that actually took what it had and built something great out of it,” she said.
In a later interview, Ms. Fry, a former secretary of state, said that she sees a difference between being a “nation” and a “country.” She said she would not consider Taiwan to be a nation.
“I just think Taiwan is a country. It’s separate from the mainland. It has its own economic development plans, it has its own social infrastructure, and it elects its own president. So it’s a country, it’s not a nation, and therein lies a difference,” she said.
Mr. Easter also gave a speech in which he referred to Taiwan as a country, however when asked about it later, he said it was a “slip of the tongue.”
“I’ve dealt with Taiwan a lot,” he said, “and though they really aren’t a country—there’s China and there’s China—you kind of see them that way because of the good relationship we have with Taiwan, though that wouldn’t be the right words,” he told The Hill Times.
When asked about the statement made by the Chinese Embassy, Mr. Easter said, “I think they’re reading too much into that by the use of country. That’s an internal dispute thing,” he said, referring to the historical tensions between Taiwan and China over sovereignty.
On April 14, the day after the Taiwan Night event, Immigration Minister John McCallum (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.) said in a news conference alongside the Chinese ambassador that, “the government of Justin Trudeau has made it abundantly clear that our desire, intent is to broaden and deepen our ties with China across all dimensions.”
He noted that Canada is interested in joining a China-led infrastructure bank. The prime minister earlier this year attended a reception with the Chinese ambassador at the foreign ministry headquarters in recognition of 45 years of Canada-China ties.
“It’s true that when you’re in the majority, so for Liberal backbenchers, the new reality is now that people are going to pay attention to what you’re saying,” said Yves Tiberghien, the director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.
“I think it’s just an issue of lack of co-ordination,” he said, because, “indeed the official position under the current government is not to make a major departure on Taiwan.”
Hugh Stephens, a former representative of Canada to Taiwan, said he assumes the MPs were speaking generically.
“We refer to places as countries without implying that there’s a distinct legal definition,” he said.
“I think that if Canada and if people in Canada have respect for Taiwan’s democracy and the future of the Taiwanese people, we need to be very careful. We do not want to be meddling and upsetting what is a very delicate balance between Taiwan and China,” he said.
Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) also delivered remarks at the event, which he said he has attended for five years.
“As the Conservative party’s foreign affairs critic, it is wonderful as well to celebrate all things Taiwanese,” he said in his speech.
He said as minister of health, he was happy to have played a role in getting the World Health Organization to include Taiwan in its discussions.
“That is so important because it’s not only about Canada and Taiwan, which is of course very special to all of us. But Taiwan must be, must continue to be, must be in the future a full member of the family of nations, and that’s what it really means to have good Canada-Taiwan relations,” he said to applause.
In a later interview about his remarks, he said, “I’m comfortable that I should have been there and I’m very happy to be a friend of Taiwan, being a member of the family of communities that can help the world be a better place.”
Mr. Tiberghien said Mr. Clement likely would not have made those remarks had he still been in government.
“I don’t think he would do it if he was in government, because Canada adheres to basically, in practice, the one-China policy. So that’s the official position. By saying otherwise, it’s a break from Canada’s position,” he said.
Gordon Houlden, director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, says there’s a “grey area of context where these issues arise,” and that sensitivity over Taiwan “waxes and wanes.”
Mr. Houlden suggested the new government in Taiwan might be furthering the sensitivities of the Chinese government. “Obviously with the new government in Taiwan the PRC government is more sensitive than before,” he said.
And, though no government ministers explicitly referred to Taiwan as a country, Mr. Houlden said simply the presence of ministers at the event could spur more of a reaction. “The sensitivity of the PRC increases as the rank of the attendees increases. So if you have senior people there then that will make them more nervous,” he said.
Mr. Stephens said as long as there’s no indication of an official change in status, individual sympathies on behalf of some MPs are “not a big deal.”