China is confronting a damning investigation published by the Associated Press this week that confirms Beijing withheld information about the novel coronavirus from the global community and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Sensing an opening, Taiwan — which the Chinese dictator Xi Jinping regards as a province that must be brought to heel — has been quietly making diplomatic moves to win allies.
Much closer ties with Canada have clearly been one of the plucky Asian island state’s leading priorities. To try to thaw what has been a frosty relationship on Canada’s side, Taiwan is sending 1.1 million high-quality surgical and N95 face masks and 100,000 protective and isolation gowns to Montreal this week. The federal government is expected to give the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to the Canadian Red Cross to distribute to front line health-care workers and Indigenous communities.
The donation comes one month after an earlier gift from Taiwan to Canada of half a million surgical masks.
Such generosity and Beijing’s faulty attempts to suppress information about the coronavirus and thwart an independent investigation into the contagion’s Chinese origins are among many compelling reasons that Canada should relax its ardent pro-China embrace and look more across the Strait of Taiwan to Taipei.
“China used a very strict lockdown and was not very transparent about information,” said Taiwan’s point man in Ottawa, Winston Wen-yi Chen.
“Was it more effective? I would say no. Look at Taiwan. We were open and transparent and protected our people.”
Lacking diplomatic recognition from all countries except a few micro-states in the South Pacific, Taiwan has been blocked for years from joining WHO and gaining access to its medical information. To circumvent the long reach of Chinese diplomacy, Taiwan helped create the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) five years ago. This has been the vehicle that Taipei has used to share its views on law enforcement, cybersecurity, women’s empowerment –as well as what it has learned about COVID-19 — with the U.S. and Japan and newer participants such as Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.
This has been done as a series of highly laudatory foreign media reports about how 23 million Taiwanese were standing up to 1.4 billion Chinese. Taiwan has apparently thrashed COVID-19 so thoroughly without help from any other country that only seven had died are there only eight active cases of the disease there as of June 3.
“I wouldn’t say it is a breakthrough but there is a buildup of friendship,” Chen said of the GCTF in an interview. “Over time, they’ve been convinced that Taiwan is a reliable friend that is interested in the public good.
“We would love to be a member of WHO, but the idea was once again rejected. However, we notice more and more countries understand the situation and show their support. We feel multilateral organizations are important. No independent country can work independently of others.”
As for Canada joining its allies in establishing warmer diplomatic, business and security ties with Taiwan or joining the GCTF, Chen answered the questions indirectly.
“We have a consensus in many areas where we share the same principles and values,” Chen said. “Canada is a good democratic model and we are a young democracy. We are learning. I believe we can work closely together.”
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Canada’s stance on Taiwan may finally be changing, but at a glacial pace. Until the end of April, cabinet ministers still seemed to be afraid to utter the word Taiwan, let alone do it any favours. However, after many of its allies supported giving what used to be called Formosa observer status at WHO, the Trudeau government finally agreed to do so, too.
With the world preoccupied with the coronavirus, Taiwan’s nemesis, China, imposed harsh new security laws on Hong Kong last month. The legislation abrogated a legal agreement Beijing made with London that the territory would remain semiautonomous until 2047 and have its own unfettered judiciary until then. The Chinese action cast doubt on similar diplomatic overtures that it has made to Taiwan over the years.
“If you talk to our people in the street, a clear majority no longer believe what China says about ‘one country, two systems,’” Chen said of this dramatic development.
“People have to understand that the threat is not only to Taiwan and its democracy and rule of law. What is happening in Hong Kong is a clear and present danger for international security. It is scary and must be taken seriously.”
Canada should pay especially close attention to events in Hong Kong because 300,000 Canadian citizens live there, the career diplomat said, adding, “If Hong Kong is no longer a free society, what is their future?”
China’s suppression of democracy and free speech in Hong Kong comes as the People’s Liberation Army is poised to begin a long naval exercise to simulate an invasion of a Pacific island. The PLA has also stepped up incursions into Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea and has had potentially dangerous scuffles with the Indian army at the “Top of the World” in the Himalayas.
“We are not naive,” Chen said. “Their aircraft carriers, bombers and fighter jets have circled us before. We are 100 per cent prepared to defend ourselves from an invasion” but remained committed to seeking a peaceful outcome.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, winner of a landslide second term in January, has said that her government was willing to engage with China on “peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue.”
Whatever eventually happens in the western Pacific and Hong Kong, recent events such as the political COVID-19 fallout have demonstrated that Taiwan is making advances in its global quest for support. It still lacks formal diplomat recognition from any major country, but now has unusual bipartisan support in an otherwise deeply politically fractured Washington and has developed stronger ties with many other countries. Canada may remain diffident but Taiwan no longer stands completely alone.
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