China’s ambassador to Canada says an effort by Ottawa to restore normal military communication will face headwinds if the navy sends another ship to the Taiwan Strait.
“We want dialogue, but it’s really based on the principle of mutual respect,” Cong Peiwu told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.
Late last month, Maj.-Gen. Gregory Smith, the Canadian military officer in charge of communicating with countries like China, said Ottawa was seeking to establish a more open dialogue with officials in Beijing.
“We’re trying to get past the simple overtures, which are just talking to each other angrily, to reestablish relationships,” Smith said.
He told the House of Commons national defense committee that Canada is seeking “a more basic discussion” with China’s defense attaché.
“We’re taking a look, but we have to do it with our most important partners across the government,” he said, adding that Canada has not held any military exercises or cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army since 2018.
Last year, Canada and the United States sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait as part of what Washington calls “freedom of navigation” operations.
In June, the United States released a video showing a Chinese ship moving into the path of an American destroyer, forcing it to slow down. A Canadian warship was alongside the American ship. Canada’s navy made another transit through the disputed strait in September.
In October, Defense Minister Bill Blair accused the Chinese military of unacceptable and unsafe behavior after a fighter jet came within five meters of a Canadian surveillance plane over the East China Sea.
The dispute concerns China’s understanding of its territorial reach, which it claims extends beyond Taiwan.
Western countries and Taiwan’s government believe the strait is international waters that foreign militaries can navigate without China’s consent.
As part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, Canada has committed to sending three navy ships to the region. There are currently none there, although Ottawa plans to send a ship within a few months, to be joined by two more in the summer.
“The Canadian Armed Forces will continue to play an active role in upholding the international order based on the rule of law and promoting stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” wrote Capt. Véronique Sabourin on behalf of the Canadian Joint Operations Command.
“HMCS Montreal is being planned to depart Halifax in the spring, en route to the Indo-Pacific.”
Cong said having such a ship between Taiwan and mainland China undermines the One China policy that Canada has maintained since 1970.
That policy, followed by many of Canada’s peers, recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate government of China.
But the policy neither endorses nor challenges the Chinese government’s stance on Taiwan, which is that it is a breakaway region that needs to be under Beijing’s rule.
“We firmly oppose any provocative actions, especially on the Taiwan issue. Anything that goes against the One China principle is dangerous,” Cong said.
“If people don’t talk about this very basic principle, there is no basis for fruitful and meaningful dialogue or communication.”
Cong said that’s why Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted Taiwan’s status in a phone call with his Canadian counterpart, Mélanie Joly, last month.
According to a summary of the call, the Chinese minister conveyed that his government considers it a matter of respect for Canada to avoid anything that could be interpreted as support for Taiwanese independence.
Stephen Saideman, a professor at Carleton University, said military-to-military communications are crucial.
“They are trying to reduce tension after years of high tension,” said Saideman, director of the Canadian Defense and Security Network.
“We don’t want to have any kind of accident that could lead to escalation. So it makes sense for us to try to have this relationship,” he said. “If you believe that war is inevitable, you will begin to behave in a way that makes it so.”
But Saideman is skeptical that Ottawa and Beijing can have normal communication, given the diplomatic tension that has involved accusations of foreign interference, trade restrictions and the detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
The two were jailed in what was widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s detention of a Huawei executive for extradition to the U.S. They were freed after more than 1,000 days when Meng signed a deferred prosecution agreement. with US authorities.
“I’m cautious because China has been very aggressive in recent years and has been quite nasty to Canada,” Saideman said.
“We want to have a good relationship but we also don’t want to give in to their demands.”
Saideman said Canada could consider reducing the frequency of its ships sailing through the Taiwan Strait, as a way to continue working to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan without being too provocative.
He argued that stopping all shipping through the strait would only encourage China to push harder.
Part of the problem is that both Canadian and Chinese leaders have an incentive to exaggerate tensions and say they are defending their citizens rather than seeking a nuanced relationship, Saideman said.
“I think we can change the optics without giving in to what the Chinese are demanding, because they’re basically saying this is a Chinese lake and we shouldn’t be there at all,” he said.
“There are ways of doing it that may give less fuel to their domestic politics, that may allow them to save face on this.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.
— With files from Sarah Ritchie and The Associated Press.