August 10th, 2023
By Dominic Cardy
This week’s Centre Ice Canadians update comes from the heart of democracy in East Asia. I am here at the invitation of Taiwan’s government, part of a delegation of Canadian politicians learning more about a country that, since being freed from 50 years of Japanese occupation in 1945, has resisted Communist China, overcome a military dictatorship, and gone on to build a vibrant, wealthy, and inclusive multi-party democracy.
It's a democracy under threat.
Taiwan is a hot place right now, literally, and politically. With the Humidex pushing 50 even locals are hunkered down, with air conditioners working overtime. And every day, along the 130-kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait which separates Communist China from free Taiwan, boats and aircraft from the Chinese armed forces push into Taiwanese territory.
Canada does not recognize Taiwan. We abandoned the country in exchange for an embassy in Beijing, way back in 1970. We are not alone: only a handful of countries maintain full diplomatic relations with Taipei, the island’s smooth-running capital city, and that number continues to drop as China becomes both richer and more threatening. Last year China’s brutal dictator for life, General Secretary Xi, made it clear that Taiwan’s “reunification” with mainland China would take place in the next few years - by force if necessary.
Putting aside its diplomatic status, Taiwan is an economic powerhouse. Since embracing democracy in the late 1980’s the country has developed rapidly. It dominates the semiconductor industry, powering the world’s computers with technology so advanced that no other country can match it.
Canada and the free world depend on Taiwan for chips (“we used to export banana chips, now we export computer chips”, one official joked) and other high-end goods. We import over three billion US dollars worth of goods every year; many cannot be sourced from anywhere else.
So, when China engages in military escalation, with its violations of Taiwanese waters and other provocations – like this week’s water cannon attack against a Pilipino vessel in waters to the south – this is not a faraway problem.
Protecting Taiwan is important for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, economics. In more optimistic decades we thought globalization and economic liberalism would spread democracy and human rights. That dream has turned into a dangerous nightmare: instead of China adopting our values they used the power of free markets in free countries to supercharge their repression. China steals our intellectual property while Western companies are addicted to cheap - sometimes literally slave - labour. China produces goods we depend on and Taiwan itself operates thousands of factories on the mainland; over a million Taiwanese citizens live there.
If the weather and the geopolitics are getting hot, the Chinese economy is cooling. Youth unemployment is reported to be near 50%. That is a worry for any dictator: there’s nothing worse for a government than lots of frustrated young people with nothing to lose. Foreign investment and tourism are crashing. When domestic politics get difficult, bad leaders often consider foreign adventures.
That takes us to the second reason why Taiwan is important to Canada: values. Despite security guarantees from the United States, what has really changed the game in Taiwan are the faraway battlefields in the Ukrainian Donbas. The unexpected resolve shown by Kyiv, and the even more unexpected rallying by the free world to defend that beleaguered democracy, have given Beijing pause.
Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine because he believed his own propaganda: that the West is decadent, divided, and dithering. The Chinese Communist Party, heading the world’s most xenophobic major government, thought the same and expected to continue their regional expansion without serious opposition. For now, the free world’s response has created uncertainty in Beijing, as it has caused panic in Moscow.
This is a moment of opportunity. Taiwan is living the values Canada proclaims as its own. Tolerant, inclusive, with free markets and a strong social safety net, the island is living proof not just that democracy can deliver, but that it can deliver for the Chinese people: not just here, but on the vast dark mainland across the Straits, where every day the CCP becomes more repressive.
Our values deliver prosperity. Not the other way around. Taiwan, like Canada, became wealthy because we put politics first, and built institutions that keep our politics on track. Part of what keeps Taiwan's democracy strong is the shadow from the mainland: a repressive and threatening alternative. While I saw cutting-edge innovations in the hi-tech, pharmaceutical, and transport sectors and heard from business leaders ready to partner with Canada, we would do well to focus on those same shadows and set to the hard work of reforming our institutions so our citizens can see that democracy delivers.
This trip has been inspiring, and sobering. Taiwan is ahead of us in some areas – their close to 100% on-time urban transit puts Ottawa’s to shame. They are like us in others, with Asia’s first transgender cabinet minister and a quiet commitment to equality that impressed me. After a meeting at an economic think tank, its head led our delegation to one of the front doors, only to run into a cleaning woman scrubbing the windows. Most places, the woman would have backed away quickly. Here, the president led us to the other door, and we said our goodbyes.
As Centre Ice continues our conversation with Canadians about what we want for our country, strengthening alliances with new and at-risk democracies like Taiwan must be part of our foreign policy. We already assert Taipei’s right to defend their system and their borders; our navy joins patrols of nearby international waters, which is much appreciated.
Most important we must continue our decoupling from the dictatorship that occupies mainland China, help Taiwanese companies diversify their markets, and create incentives for Canadian firms to invest in democracies. When President Xi talks about reunifying China, I agree with them. But that reunification should be based on Taipei’s values and economy, not Beijing’s.
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Chair, Centre Ice Canadians Advisory Board
Dominic Cardy is the Member of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick for the riding of Fredericton West-Hanwell. He’s co-founder and director of Centre Ice Canadians in addition to serving as the Chair of the Centre Ice Advisory Board.