Strengthening Engagement with Taiwan


Image credit: Chris Stowers/ Flickr


by Jonathan Manthorpe
May 2021


Table of Contents

Strengthening Engagement with Taiwan

Indications are that governments around the world are deciding that their relations with the nation of Taiwan deserve to be considered on their own merits, and not as a subset of their relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). For the last 50 years, Beijing’s claim to own the island has influenced international dealings with Taiwan. Beijing’s refusal to have formal diplomatic or economic relations with any country that recognized the government in Taipei has prompted many governments, including major players like the United States, the European Union (EU) and other G7 members including Canada, to disguise their embassies in Taiwan as “trade offices” or suchlike. But there are signs that governments of democracies in particular are tiring of these petty duplicities, which were designed to appease Beijing. An era of intense competition and contested philosophies between the PRC and the democracies of Asia, Europe and the Americas is now in full swing. The hope that Beijing would buy into the framework and culture of international institutions constructed by Western democracies over the last 70 years is now a thing of the past. Thus, it is no longer necessary to hold Taiwan at arm’s length simply because Beijing demands the isolation of the island and its 23 million people.

At the same time, Taiwan is too important on its own merits to be ignored or dealt with only as a clandestine partner. Taiwan is highly successful democratically. It is a world-class innovator in technology and a global leader in microchip development and manufacture. Despite being excluded from almost all global organizations, Taiwan is a model internationalist in a multitude of global issues and partnerships, most notably at the moment, public health. The skill with which the Taipei administration of President Tsai Ing-wen addressed the COVID-19 pandemic has been noted worldwide. Indeed, Taiwan issued a warning in December 2018 about the emerging coronavirus epidemic in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. It was not until mid-March 2020, three months later, that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Meanwhile in Taiwan, swift, decisive and well-informed action meant that only 1,110 people on the island contracted virus and only 12 people died.

A recent indication of this new frame of mind occurred on April 14 when the EU co-hosted with the U.S. and Taiwan a Global Co-operation and Training Framework workshop. The meeting discussed restructuring the global supply chain and the financing of small and medium-sized enterprises. Taiwan created the framework in 2015 as a forum for circumventing its exclusion from international organizations. This was the first time the EU had taken part and that is significant in the context of Brussels’ plans to publish next month a new strategy for relations with the Indo-Pacific region. From what has been said already, it is clear the EU is taking a broad vision of its future relations with greater Asia, and that it will be paying particular attention to scaling up its ties with like-minded countries such as Taiwan.

Similar thoughts are going through the heads of U.S. policy-makers in Washington. President Joe Biden’s administration is changing only the tone and dexterity of the previous Trump regime’s confrontational, competitive policy towards Beijing. Relaxation of long-running restrictions on official dealings with the Taipei government is a spin-off of the new administration’s stance towards Beijing. The revised guidelines were issued to staff at the State Department at the beginning of April. The new rules were not made public, but appear to allow for a level of formal meetings and discourse with Taiwan by U.S. officials that have been forbidden since Washington entered diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1979. “The guidance underscores Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and an important security and economic partner that is also a force for good in the international community,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. Biden underscored the new approach by sending former senator Chris Dodd as a personal representative to Taiwan to meet Tsai and senior Taipei officials to discuss co-operation on preserving peace and prosperity in the region.

Tokyo too is adjusting its relations with Taipei. This is a more subtle movement than those evident in the U.S. or EU because Japan has always maintained a much stronger relationship just below the radar with Taipei than other countries. Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 until 1945 and people-to-people relations between the two countries have remained strong. Many elderly Taiwanese, whose native language is known as Minan or Hokkien, speak Japanese rather than the Mandarin of the PRC as their second language. All Taiwanese presidents since the advent of full democracy in the 1990s have had informal meetings with the Japanese prime ministers of the time. In Taiwan, the Japanese cultural heritage remains strong, and has been enhanced among young Taiwanese for whom Japanese popular culture is ubiquitous. Economic ties between Japan and Taiwan are robust. Despite its small size, Taiwan is Japan’s fifth largest export market, its fourth largest destination for foreign direct investment, and is a crucial component supplier, assembly base and entry point into the PRC market.

Those economic links have increased in significance as Japan has taken over the de facto leadership of what is now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The CPTPP members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. They represent 500 million people, and 13.4 per cent of global domestic product. What distinguishes the CPTPP is that as well as being a free trade agreement, it also seeks to enhance transparency and high standards of probity in international business. A Canadian government statement on the CPTPP says: “The Agreement features ambitious market access commitments in trade in goods, services, investment, labour mobility, and government procurement. The Agreement also establishes clear rules that help create a consistent, transparent and fair environment to do business in the CPTPP markets.”

Taiwan is keen to join the CPTPP, and as the country is already a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), there is no legal barrier to it joining a regional trade agreement consistent with WTO membership. Japan and other existing CPTPP members are eager for Taiwan to join the group, and there is significant political support both inside and outside Parliament for Canada to add its voice. Writing for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in December last year, Hugh Stephens, Canada’s former chief diplomatic representative in Taiwan and now vice-chair of the Canadian Committee on Pacific Economic Co-operation, said that Ottawa “should move quickly and enthusiastically to support Taiwan’s accession” to the CPTPP. “We should do so because it is in the interest of Canada and the other members of the CPTPP to add to the strength of the organization by welcoming an economy that is an important global trader and a key player in global supply chains. In addition, Taiwan is a country that is clearly willing and able to accept CPTPP disciplines,” Stephens said.

That willingness to accept group rules, of course, comes from Taiwan’s status as an established and self-assured democracy. Indeed, Taiwan is one of the most successful countries in the last half-century to have navigated the often bumpy ride from being a one-party state under martial law to a vibrant, liberal democracy. But like many democracies these days, Taiwan finds its institutions of civil rights, the rule of law and representative and accountable government under threat. In Taiwan’s case, most of these threats come from outside the country. The Tsai administration is struggling to find ways of fending off the threats to its civic values, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, without undermining those values in the process. In December 2019, Taiwan’s parliament adopted an anti-infiltration law aimed at stopping overseas political organizations from influencing the country’s elections. From some perspectives, this was a minimalist response to the challenges Taiwan faces to its democratic culture, primarily from the Chinese Communist Party. Canada and other middle-power democracies face similar threats both from within and without. At the moment, Canada also has legislation aimed at preventing foreign interference in elections, but has not seriously addressed the broader issue of foreign influence on domestic political life.

As the global balance of power and ideologies changes and rearranges, it is essential that middle powers such as Canada and Taiwan exchange experiences and responses. This should not only be at governmental levels. There is plenty of room for fruitful academic, business, media, institutional and other cultural exchanges. It would acknowledge the reality of the current situation if Ottawa and the governments of other major democracies extended full diplomatic recognition to Taipei. There is no legal inhibition to this. Unlike other countries, when Ottawa negotiated diplomatic recognition with Beijing in 1970, the government of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau refused to acknowledge the PRC’s claim to own Taiwan. Trudeau’s officials agreed only to “note” the Chinese Communist Party’s claim. Now, everyone knows that if Ottawa did recognize Taiwan for what it is – an independent nation – Beijing would respond by cutting diplomatic ties with Canada and probably worse. So, no Canadian government for the foreseeable future will do that. But there is plenty of room for enhanced ties and even treaty alliances short of that move. It is important to do that, both for the Canada-Taiwan relationship itself and as part of a process of Canada enhancing its ties with other Indo-Pacific democracies.


About the Author

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada (Cormorant Books, 2019), and Restoring Democracy in an Age of Populists and Pestilence (Cormorant Books, 2020).


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