Preserving Taiwan’s Status in the Indo-Pacific: Towards a Creative Approach


Image credit: Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services


by Charlotte Duval-Lantoine and David Perry
March 2024


Table of Contents


Canada’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy rightly recognizes escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait as a key manifestation of increasing great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific region. Given escalating rhetoric from Chinese President Xi Jinping, massive increases in Chinese military hardware and a proliferation of aggressive Chinese behaviour, it has become increasingly difficult to sail freely across the Taiwan Strait and to engage with Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is increasing its capability to threaten and influence Taiwan through conventional military, hybrid or grey-zone tactics. Taiwan supports international norms and the rules-based international order, is dedicated to democracy and plays a critical role in the information technologies and communications industry. Thus, it’s in Canada’s interests to support the maintenance of the regional status quo. The Taiwan Strait’s importance and its potential to be at the heart of a global crisis requires Canada to develop as deep and sophisticated an understanding as possible of Taiwan’s security concerns and views on its security situation.

The circumstances governing relations between the international community and Taiwan – given relations with the PRC and various understandings of a One China policy – actually put Canada in a unique position to contribute to maintaining Taiwan’s autonomy vis-à-vis the PRC. Few countries have been willing to deploy naval assets to conduct Taiwan Strait transits, and fewer still have been willing to do so with the United States Navy, as Canada does. Canada thus has the potential to impact this situation, outstripping our ability to shape security in most other areas outside of North America. Despite this strong role, the importance of regional circumstances for international peace and stability warrants Canada deepening its relationship with Taiwan and broadening its understanding of the situation.

In 2024, the Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are entering into a period of spending restraint and reduced equipment readiness. The measures mentioned here will benefit from modest investments of human or financial resources and the continuation of existing practices. While Canada can better understand the region, some of our military and diplomatic practices provide more support for Taiwan than is often recognized. We need to continue and enhance these activities amid competing pressures for resources.


Enhancing Freedom of Navigation Operations and Sending the Right Signal

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is one of the rare navies whose ships transit through the Taiwan Strait, making the passage through these seas a significant and influential aspect of Canada’s presence in the Indo-Pacific. This gives Canada an important role in reinforcing the fact that the strait is an international waterway as well as shaping norms of passage through it. The RCN’s passages through the strait can help form wider norms for interacting with other countries’ vessels throughout the region and for how internationally recognized maritime boundaries and sovereignty claims are respected.

This brings up the question of behaviour and what is understood as safe passage through the strait. Currently, two non-binding agreements offer guidelines for safe transit: The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES 2014) expands on the recommended safety behaviours outlined in the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs). While these agreements outline the duties of each vessel and aircraft in avoiding collision and properly communicating one’s presence at sea, they do not address what a ship ought to do when facing provocations that risk collisions.

In the case of the Taiwan Strait and the RCN, this scenario is not hypothetical. In June 2023, as HMCS Montréal sailed through the strait alongside an American guided-missile destroyer, a Chinese ship manoeuvred 140 metres away from the USS Chung Hoon. Three months later, HMCS Ottawa, the USS Ralph Johnson and a Taiwanese warship were followed by three Chinese warships and seemingly surveilled by Chinese fighter jets. However, neither CUES nor COLREGS defines what “safe distance” entails. The Chinese navy and air force, despite clearly behaving in unsafe and aggressive manners, could argue that they remained within the bounds of the conventions and regulations. Also, neither document presents remedial solutions or responses should such incidents happen.

The RCN is in a relatively unique position to help shape standards and procedures for when vessels are confronted with Chinese actions at sea that undermine their safe passage, and then train their sailors accordingly. Canadian ships are also in a position with every transit to reinforce the principle of free transit in internationally recognized waters with both the ship’s passage and any accompanying statements. Disputes over some waters in Canada’s North make this more complicated for Canada than it might be for a country that strongly supports international legal norms and principles. The heightened strategic concern over the Arctic and focus on modernizing NORAD is an opportunity for Canada to resolve those disagreements in the interest of strengthening our ability to defend North America’s northern reaches. Doing so would allow Canada to be a consistently stronger advocate for recognizing international legal claims in the Indo-Pacific, including the Taiwan Strait.


Supporting Taiwan in Building Resilience: Defence Industry Diplomacy?

Another aspect of the Taiwan-Canada relationship that is not fully limited by the One China policy is trade. Taiwan is Canada’s 12th largest trading partner. In 2022, Canada exported $2.6 billion worth of merchandise to Taiwan and imported $9.5 billion worth of Taiwanese goods. Of those $2.6 billion worth of exports, over $30 million were for military goods and technology, spread across the use of 14 export permits and the obtention of 12 new ones. While modest in size, these exports make Taiwan Canada’s 12th largest market for arms exports and have included unique, value-added defence technology. Notable exports include BMT Canada Ltd.’s consulting and engineering advice for the Taiwanese submarine fleet project as well as the provision of the Lockheed Martin Canada Combat Management System (CMS) 330 for the Taiwanese navy’s Lightweight Frigate program (awarded in August 2023).

Military goods and technology are “controlled items,” and their export requires a permit from Global Affairs Canada. The goal of such a process is “to ensure that exports of controlled items are consistent with Canada’s foreign and defence policies.” This procedure is not only required to align exports with Canada’s policies, but also to align with international treaties Canada has signed concerning weapons (non-) proliferation. Which countries Canada grants export permits to, and for which types of goods or services, indicates the strength of Canada’s foreign policy with the recipient country. The value-added nature of the marine technology exported thus far to Taiwan outweighs the modest contract values announced to date.

Further, as the Western experience of military donations to Ukraine has demonstrated, defence exports provide an under-recognized role in reinforcing foreign and defence policy. Defence is predicated on access to adequate supplies of materiel, and most countries are unable to fully supply their own militaries through domestic production. Taiwan is rapidly enhancing its defence capabilities in the face of PRC military expansion and aggressive rhetoric from Beijing about rapidly acquiring the ability to invade Taiwan by 2027. Given the CAF’s aging naval fleets and fighter aircraft, with replacements years away, Canada can provide more tangible help to Taiwan in the short to medium term through defence exports than it can through many other forms of assistance. Exports support Canadian industry, benefit the Canadian economy and increase people-to-people ties between Canadians and Taiwanese. They could also enhance Canadian knowledge of Taiwan and its security outlook, thus strengthening security ties over the long-term life of the defence capability Canada is supporting.


People-to-People Ties at the Security Level

Enhancing people-to-people ties is the third objective of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the One China policy constrains Canada quite significantly in its security ties with Taiwan. Global Affairs’ web page states that relations with Taiwan are “unofficial.” Furthermore, Global Affairs underlined in a 2021 statement to Reuters that “Canada does not maintain military-to-military or defense relations with Taiwan.” 

Yet, Canada has profound interests in Taiwan retaining its autonomy and developing strong relationships with the island. To this end, a better appreciation of the security and defence situation on the ground would be beneficial. This is the case both for Taiwan itself, and for its regional insights, particularly of China. Dominic Barton, former Canadian ambassador to China, recently described Canadian understanding as “pathetic.” The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) organized a trip to Taiwan in June 2023 for Canadian think-tank leaders1 and has conducted many other such visits to facilitate exactly this type of improved knowledge in Canada. However, more is needed.

Although the One China policy limits the avenues for Canada, there is much room to expand and improve. TECO and the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei could build on the TECO visits program to expand exchanges between the two countries in partnerships with academics, think tanks and civil society institutions. The focus could initially be placed on students interested in security, defence or international relations, and build outwards from there. Canada could also leverage Chinese-language opportunities in Taiwan to strengthen Canada’s language capacity, while also improving people-to-people ties with Taiwan. With the closing of a number of Confucius Institutes throughout Canada, a Taiwanese school for Mandarin training could fill a language vacuum.

There is also a need to look further for professional development, exchanges and training at the mid- and senior levels of government, particularly for the DND, the CAF, Global Affairs Canada and other national security actors. The Canadian government could approach this in a few ways.

First, the Canadian Forces College could invite a Taiwanese civilian, possibly a recent veteran, to attend the National Security Program. Civilian public servants from outside the defence team have attended this program, which aims to “prepare selected military, public service, international and private-sector leaders for future responsibilities within a complex and ambiguous global security environment.” The notion of “international leaders” entails a possibility to admit a Taiwanese civilian to attend the one-year course. This model could be adapted to other facets of Canadian professional military education.

A complementary idea would be to leverage the mentorship structure in the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Program. Each year, selected leaders (usually retired from government) become mentors for the students. Including a Taiwanese veteran or retired defence official could bring Taiwanese knowledge and geopolitical issues into the program, without changing the curriculum or the program’s operation.

The DND could also consider creating a fellowship program for Taiwanese scholars to conduct research and teach at the Canadian Forces College, akin to the NATO Defense College Fellowship. To avoid pitfalls related to the One China policy and the perception that Canada and Taiwan are building defence and military ties, the fellowship competition could be developed in partnership with the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). This would create a distance between the administration of the competition, the DND and the candidates. The Taiwanese government would not be involved, as scholars would apply directly themselves. 

Such an idea could also be replicated at the think-tank and university level, where SSHRC would partner with its Taiwanese counterparts to create an exchange program for researchers to join a think tank or a research institute in one another’s countries. With their mandate of education and developing policy ideas, think tanks are in a prime position to share and distribute knowledge not only to decision-makers and officials, but also to the rest of Canadian or Taiwanese society.

To help enhance people-to-people ties between Taiwanese and Canadians and improve the understanding of Taiwan’s security situation, these programs would ideally need to recur year after year, rather than function on an ad hoc basis. Both Canadians and Taiwanese would benefit from the strengthened people-to-people ties that would result, while also deepening Canada’s understanding of one of the world’s key potential geopolitical crisis points. Canada could benefit from welcoming Taiwanese voices for topics such as cross-strait relations, especially from a naval perspective, tackling dis- and misinformation and other forms of hybrid tactics, as well as enhancing democratic resilience while under threat.


For a Creative Approach to Defence Diplomacy

Protecting Canada’s interests vis-à-vis Taiwan and open navigation in the Taiwan Strait, in the context of mounting Chinese sovereignty claims over the island and the seas that separate it from the mainland, requires a combination of new approaches and continuation of past practices. Canada’s One China policy presents some difficulties for establishing closer formal co-operation, but would not preclude enhanced private sector, academic, civil society and people-to-people ties.

On this front, Canada should be as forward leaning as we have been with respect to Taiwan Strait transits and arms exports. These activities go a long way toward efficiently and effectively pursuing Canada’s objectives in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The strategy calls for “once in a generation” and “whole-of-society” efforts to improve Canada’s links with the region. Canada can help enhance Taiwan’s resilience amid increased geopolitical pressures and be a valuable partner to the free, open, peaceful, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific in doing so.


End Notes

[1] One of the authors was a participant.


About the Authors

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine is the Ottawa Operations Manager and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, as well as Triple Helix's Executive Director and Gender Advisor. She is the author of The Ones We Let Down: Toxic Leadership Culture and Gender Integration in the Canadian Forces, 1989-1999 (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022). This book, which looks into the toxic culture of leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces during the 1990s and its impact on gender integration, was named among The Hill Times' Best Books of 2022. Her research interests include questions of military leadership, culture change, and personnel policy, topics on which she regularly comments in the media. For this work, Charlotte was recognized as a 2022 Women in Defence and Security Emerging Leader. She regularly participates in consultation organized by the Department of National Defence and has given talks to West Point and RMC cadets, to the National Strategic Program at the Canadian Forces College, and to the Australian War College. She is currently working on projects on civilian-military relations, the Somalia Affair, and organizational change in the Canadian military.  

Dr. David Perry is the President of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, host of the institute’s Defence Deconstructed Podcast and a co-director of the Triple Helix MINDs Collaborate Network. He is the author of multiple publications related to defence budgeting, transformation and procurement and a columnist for the Canadian Naval Review. He received his PhD in political science from Carleton University where his dissertation examined the link between defence budgeting and defence procurement. He is an adjunct professor at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a research fellow of the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University.  He was previously the Senior Security and Defence Analyst of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and Deputy Director of Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.  Embassy Magazine and The Hill Times has named him one of the "Top 100 Influencing Canadian Foreign Policy.”


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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