As a multiparty delegation of Canadian politicians returns home from Taiwan, MPs say the island can be a model for Canada when it comes to dealing with the threat of foreign interference from China.
Speaking to CBC’s The House from Taiwan as they prepared to depart, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong and Liberal MP John McKay — who chairs the parliamentary committee on national defence — said they had been impressed by the Taiwanese approach to resisting disinformation campaigns.
“I think there’s a lot of lessons that Canada can learn about foreign interference and how society and government should respond to harden Canadian society against this meddling that we’re experiencing from Beijing,” Chong told host Catherine Cullen.
Beijing insists that Taiwan is part of China. But Taiwan’s leaders reject Beijing’s sovereignty claim and the island is governed democratically.
The trip, organized as part of the Canada-Taiwan Friendship Group in Parliament and also including members from the Bloc and NDP, was in part overshadowed by large-scale air and naval military drills by China last week near Taiwan. Those drills are thought to be linked to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the United States earlier this month.
In a separate interview on Rosemary Barton Live, McKay said the threat posed by China was “serious” and the superpower was attempting to “turn Taiwan into a vassal state.” But he praised Taiwanese officials, and Tsai in particular, as strong and determined.
He told CBC’s chief political correspondent that Taiwan was poorly treated by the international community and could be further integrated into international institutions and partnerships like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Asked whether he was concerned that trips by politicians — such as then-U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last year — could risk further inflaming tensions in the region, McKay was blunt.
“I don’t really worry about what China might think about this trip or might not think about this trip,” McKay said. He highlighted a series of points of tension within the Canada-China relationship, including the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, industrial espionage and the intimidation of the Chinese diaspora in Canada.
Scott Simon, a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in the study of Taiwan, said in an interview that trips by foreign politicians to Taiwan happened frequently, and that China’s recent military drills had more to do with favourable weather this time of year.
“China doesn’t respond to every trip. They are basically only interested in the American relations with Taiwan,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau voiced support for the MPs’ trip earlier this week, saying “it’s extremely important to show our support for democratic values and principles around the world.”
“China’s aggressive actions in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan are problematic and we really hope there will be a de-escalation of tensions in the region,” Trudeau said.
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McKay said the highlight of the trip was a meeting with Taiwan’s minister of digital affairs. McKay said Canadian MPs learned that Taiwan benefited from a single ministry responsible for responding to cyberattacks, both in government and in government-regulated industries.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said Taiwanese media education campaigns emphasize critical thinking on social media. He noted that the Taiwanese approach focuses on consumers of information, rather than the regulation of media platforms.
The University of Ottawa’s Simon said it’s probably too much to call Taiwan a “model” for Canada to emulate. But he said it’s true that Taiwan has a major problem with influence operations coming from China and therefore more experience dealing with it.
“There are all kinds of different Chinese influences that go on, and of course it’s much more of a serious problem in Taiwan than it is in Canada,” he said.
Even putting the question of foreign influence aside, Simon said the Canada-Taiwan relationship — rarely in the forefront of Canada’s national conversation — was still important.
“It’s actually one of the stronger economic relationships we have in the world,” he said. “[In Asia] it’s after Japan and South Korea, but it’s up there as a very important partner to Canada.”
Unity abroad, discord at home
The united front displayed by MPs overseas stood in stark contrast to the rancour in Ottawa this week, as politicians clashed in committee during testimony by Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford on Friday.
Conservative MPs expressed frustration with Telford’s answers, and her appearance came after a long filibuster in the House committee studying allegations of Chinese foreign interference in Canadian elections.
Asked about the juxtaposition between actions overseas and domestically, Chong said the Taiwanese example did give some guidance on how the Canadian government should respond — emphasizing openness and transparency.
“I think that’s the key for Canada’s path forward. It’s for the government to be much more transparent and open about what exactly is going on,” Chong said. “And I think if they were to take that approach, Canadians would respond and make the kinds of decisions in their day-to-day lives and elections that will ensure resiliency against this kind of meddling in our democracy.”
His Liberal rival echoed that view. “I would agree with Michael,” McKay said. “I would add further that we cannot afford the luxury of partisanship on this particular file. These are national crisis issues and if we do not as a nation get our act together it will be to our detriment.”