A welcome precedent was set on Wednesday when Taiwan’s representative to Canada, David Lee (李大維), was invited to address a Canadian parliamentary committee in an official capacity, something that had not happened since Canada severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1970.
Addressing the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Lee touched on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China and, as expected, toed the line from Taipei on recent developments such as Taiwan’s presence as an observer at the World Health Assembly (WHA) earlier this month.
Signal from Ottawa
It is nice to see Canada, if only symbolically, supporting a more visible international presence for Taiwan, and the invitation extended to Lee undoubtedly was a move in that direction. Somewhat more subtly, Ottawa was also sending a signal that it supports the cross-strait policies of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Much like Washington, in the eight years under pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Ottawa saw the Taiwan question as an irritant that risked causing difficulties — if not war — in the Asia-Pacific. (Canada’s own problems with Quebec separatists also dampened whatever support there might have been in Ottawa for Taiwanese independence, while its support for Kosovo independence, conversely, likely stemmed from its NATO membership.)
Coming on the heels of the WHA and amid growing exchanges across the Taiwan Strait, Lee’s presence in parliament could be seen as a reward by Ottawa for diminishing the risk of “unnecessary” (in Ottawa’ view) conflict in Asia. (During the “provocative” Chen years, Taiwan’s envoy to Canada would never have received such an invitation.) Canada, like many other countries, wants that problem to disappear and has had little patience for such details as the erosion of democracy in Taiwan or opposition to the manner in which the Ma administration has engaged Beijing. From a safe, though by default nearsighted, distance on the other side of the world, Ma is seen as defusing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and doing all the right, rational things. In light of this, one cannot expect that Lee would have been pressed by members of parliament to discuss (or that he would have volunteered to do so) opposition to Ma’s measures.
Once the irritant of pro-independence and opposition to Ma is removed, it becomes easy to look at the future of the Taiwan Strait with optimism (as the meeting did) and to focus on everybody’s favorite “safe” question — trade.
Ironically, this is where Lee stumbled and lost his dignity, by saying that for Canadians, Taiwan was the shortest and best route to China. In other words, Taiwan is a means to an end, a mere stepping stone to the great Chinese market. (It’s an ever shorter and better route if the problems of independence and democracy are swept under the rug, as they were during the meeting.)
Lee didn’t have to say this. After all, Canada, whose trade relationship with the US is similar to that between Taiwan and China, would never say that it is the shortest and best route to the US.
Perhaps Mr. Lee does not understand what international space means, that it actually reinforces a country’s sovereignty. Despite the proximity and cultural similarities, Taiwan is more than a mere pathway to China. Lee was offered a rare opportunity to speak for Taiwan abroad in official capacity. His undignified response, sadly, reinforces the view, unashamedly polished by the Ma administration, that Taiwan is too weak to stand on its feet, that it will readily go down on all four so that others can walk on its back.
That is what, above all, irritated the international community under Chen — Taiwanese dignity.
Version of this article published in the Taipei Times on June 2 available here.