China has taken over Hong Kong. Is Taiwan next?
As democracies grapple with the challenge of China, our first impulse is to concern ourselves with our own vulnerabilities.
After all, we Canadians are painfully aware of our own direct exposure – economic, political and personal: we are consumed by the prolonged hostage-taking of our “two Michaels”; our foreign policy is distracted by the increased risks for Canadian expatriates in Hong Kong; and our $ 25 billion in exports remain in the crosshairs.
The rest of the West is worried about China’s rapid economic and geographic gains over the alleged decline of democracies – a topic we debated in Thursday’s most recent co-production between the Toronto Star and TVO’s The Agenda. But collective introspection on our so-called weaknesses, and our concern for Chinese trend lines, overlooks the larger point – the larger flashpoints on the front lines of China’s borders.
Think of Taiwan, directly in the crosshairs of China. Think of Hong Kong, deeply in the grip of China.
While Western democracies worry about their future confrontations with China, it is the rising and falling democracies in the East that are most at risk. Taiwan and Hong Kong are now in the foreground.
In truth, we are too late for the latter: Hong Kong has fallen.
He won’t be recovering anytime soon. Nearly a quarter of a century after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule, Beijing’s written pledge to allow Hong Kong‘s 7.5 million people to control the pace of democratic self-government has been crushed by new national security laws imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party. .
Now our 300,000 fellow citizens who still live in Hong Kong will hang on to their Canadian passports but lose the protection they once offered. Canadian citizenship rights are worthless if you live in a place devoid of democratic protections, whether in Hong Kong or on the mainland, as the two Michaels – career diplomat Michael Kovrig and expatriate entrepreneur discovered. Michael Spavor “- in their holding cells, unfairly ransomed as retaliation for the Huawei case.
Hong Kong’s fate makes it easy to forget that it was once touted as a possible model for Taiwan. For years, China has referred to its “one country, two systems” formula – embedded in the 1984 Sino-British that paved the way for the transfer – as a way of bridging the gap between a democratic Taiwan and a dictatorial continent. .
Today, this analogy is the victim of ideology, as laughable as it is unforgettable. Ever since anti-Communist forces withdrew from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949, Beijing has viewed it as a renegade province – claiming and vowing to reclaim it.
Most countries, including Canada, respect the diplomatic fiction of “One China,” while unofficially maintaining commercial and cultural ties with Taiwan. In sunnier times, Beijing and Taipei codified the status quo by deepening their supply chains, resuming direct air links and encouraging tourism – putting the old Cold War on ice.
Today, a resurgent China takes its rhetoric to new heights, while deploying its fighter jets in the skies over the Taiwan Strait. Chinese fighter jets take off from the mainland at dizzying frequency to probe Taiwan’s air defense zone as the island scrambles its own American-made planes to defend itself.
It’s a war of nerves in the air that evokes memories of past conflicts at sea – bilateral rivalries that could turn into world wars. Before the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, there was the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958, when Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army bombed nationalist forces on the small island of Quemoy, just 1.5 kilometers away. from the continent.
Quemoy has since been renamed Kinmen, but he is still a trigger for Taiwan. When I flew to this military redoubt during one of Taiwan’s presidential elections, the fortifications were unraveling but there were still fears on the front lines.
The specter of war is still on the horizon in Kinmen. During my visit, Taiwanese soldiers looking through binoculars were more likely to see fellow Taiwanese watching them from the mainland as tourists – but against the backdrop of two rival armies sinking, Chinese staring at Chinese, parents eyeing their loved ones.
In the years that followed, a cold wind blowing from the continent reignited the Cold War. When the deadly SARS virus erupted in 2003, Beijing attempted to put Taiwan back in its place by displacing it from the World Health Organization; that game was replayed last year, when China again blocked Taiwan’s participation in WHO deliberations even as COVID-19 raged around the world.
More recently, the Halifax International Security Forum wanted to award its highest annual award to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, but the Canadian government hesitated (threatening to withdraw funding), according to reports. The Federal Liberals were cautious face to face, and the forum has yet to announce a winner, but the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion declaring the President of Taiwan “the ideal candidate” for such recognition – a agile defense of democratic ideals.
Having said that, non-binding motions from MPs won’t matter much when the going. Canada also cannot unilaterally lead China to back down, no matter how much the House of Commons might huff and puff from a safe distance.
China is testing Taiwan’s air defenses, but is also looking for weak spots around the world. It is too late for Hong Kong, but it may soon be time for Taiwan – and democracies around the world – to rise to this challenge, not only with political rhetoric, but with collective determination.