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COMMENTARY: With Hong Kong’s fate sealed, Canada must side with Taiwan against China

A ship carrying the slogan of "Celebrating the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland" sails at the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, south China, July 1, 2020.
A ship carrying the slogan of "Celebrating the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland" sails at the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, south China, July 1, 2020. Credit Image: © Lui Siu Wai/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

China would rather have the world hate and fear it than change course on Hong Kong.

Beijing’s ferocious suppression of the last vestiges of free speech in the former British territory, the introduction of secret agents from the mainland there, its intention to have marchers it accuses of being terrorists tried in kangaroo courts — where they could be sentenced to life in jail for what were previously misdemeanours — and that anyone, anywhere could face charges for supporting those who oppose Chinese rule there are the clearest warnings yet that China will ruthlessly pursue its national interests and does not care what others think.

Read more: Hong Kong marks anniversary of handover to China as security law takes effect

There is much hand-wringing in Ottawa and elsewhere right now, but Hong Kong’s fate has been decided, and it is even worse than had been imagined.

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It is already past time to think about which place is next on Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s hit list. Judging by his dictatorship’s incendiary rhetoric about democratic Taiwan and the recent manoeuvres of the People’s Liberation Army’s navy, coast guard and air force in adjacent waters and air space, Taipei is to be crushed soon, too.

Taiwan is a much bigger morsel to digest than Hong Kong. It has a formidable modern military and an admirable, high-tech economy. But unless it gets substantial help, it is not nearly big enough to stand up to the superpower that looms across the Taiwan Strait.

Whatever problems lie ahead for the 31.2 million people who live in Hong Kong and Taiwan, surely all these souls cannot simultaneously be denied their human rights and placed in harsh re-education camps on trumped-up charges. Or could they be?

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Well, yes, it is possible. China has had no qualms about jailing more than one million Muslim Uighurs from the supposedly autonomous region of Xinjiang, forcing them to speak Mandarin and abandon their religion, and it may now be depriving some of them of the right to have children.

Read more: 13 tons of hair weaves suspected to be from Chinese internment camps seized at U.S. border

The West was mostly silent as China eroded the freedoms of the Uighurs and Hong Kongers. The United States, the United Kingdom and others, such as Australia, have finally shown some gumption on Hong Kong, sending warships or warplanes into the region or preparing to offer refuge and a path to citizenship to people from there, but the response was far too late to affect the dire outcome for the territory. Even after the fact, Canada has danced away from the question of whether it would make accepting refugees from Hong Kong a priority.

Read more: Canada updates travel advisory for Hong Kong after China enacts security law

The coastal enclave’s fate, which is even uglier than had been predicted a few weeks ago, should compel deep introspection in Ottawa. There must be a major rethinking of the kind of relationship that Canada has so badly wanted with China. It needs meaningful ideas about how to strengthen Ottawa’s multilateral security, trade and intelligence ties on the far side of the vast Indo-Pacific.

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Work has apparently begun between Canada’s closest allies to lessen dependence on China for many essential goods. This should only be the start. Canada and its partners need to radically shift course. There are many things that can be done. The most obvious in the short term is to support Taiwan, though Canada need not go so far yet as to formally recognize that island state again, as it did until 1970.

Read more: Canada suspending Hong Kong extradition treaty in response to new security law

The U.S. has responded with several specific trade sanctions against Hong Kong. Britain has offered a way for about three million Hong Kong Chinese to settle in Britain and eventually receive full British citizenship.

After those measures were announced, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suspended Canada’s extradition treaty with the territory on Friday. It was also decided to treat Canadian exports of sensitive military goods to Hong Kong as if they were going to mainland China, where such Canadian exports are forbidden.

The prime minister hinted further measures in support of Hong Kong Chinese might be announced soon.

Naysayers among Canada’s elites and diplomatic corps, whose first instinct is always to retreat or wait for allies to take a position first rather than show leadership, will likely say that Canadians would pay too steep a price by siding openly with Taiwan, especially if that support involves a security dimension. Yet the current diplomacy, which has been tantamount to appeasement, has achieved nothing for the Two Michaels who were kidnapped by Beijing, for Hong Kong or for the cherished government goal of much greater trade with China.

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The squeeze that China has already applied to Taiwan provides Canada with a chance to join the informal coalition that has been coalescing to confront a marauder whose rapacity is scaring and vexing the world. The best way to do this is through close high-tech and other business partnerships between Taiwanese and Canadian firms while continuing such trade arrangements with China that are possible. But there has to be a more robust Plan B if Plan A does not work.

Commentary: Taiwan lends a hand to Canada as China turns its back

As with Hong Kong before it, few in Canada are yet awake to the danger to Taiwan and the ramifications for others. To understand why Taiwan matters, study a map of the western Pacific. In a flash, it will illustrate the grim strategic consequences for South Korea and Japan, which has the world’s third-largest economy, if they have to run a Chinese gauntlet in order to trade with the rest of Asia, North America, Australia, the Middle East and Europe.

Taiwan is not the only domino. As the map will show, the other grievous matter, which is deeply connected to the future of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, is China’s well-advanced plan to populate the western Pacific with a ring of military bases. People’s Liberation Army warplanes and warships probe Japanese and South Korean territory every day in the East China Sea and are the spearhead that Beijing is using to seize about 90 per cent of the South China Sea from seven atolls that are far closer to Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia than to China’s shores.

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WATCH (June 27, 2019): Chinese fighter jets buzz Canadian warship in East China Sea

Click to play video 'Chinese fighter jets buzz Canadian warship in East China Sea' Chinese fighter jets buzz Canadian warship in East China Sea
Chinese fighter jets buzz Canadian warship in East China Sea

Xi pledged never to militarize the outcroppings when Chinese dredges built them into artificial islands five years ago. But they now have military-grade airfields that bristle with radars and missiles as well as ammo and fuel dumps.

China’s playbook has been to use these atolls, trade, tourism, state-sponsored kidnapping, cyber warfare and espionage and intimidation of some of its smallest neighbours on the high seas as its public diplomacy.

The stark lesson to be learned from Hong Kong and China’s many aggressions is that it makes its own rules. Canada has been a notoriously slow learner. As a trading nation with significant Pacific interests, Ottawa cannot afford to absent itself again from the hard decisions that are coming about Taiwan.

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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.