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Taiwan-Canada ties surge as supporters tout trade, politics and shared values

VANCOUVER — Somewhere at the confluence of politics, commerce and shared values driving a recent wave of Canadian fascination with Taiwan, there were the island's "freedom pineapples.
Taiwan is enjoying a spike in prominence in Canadian discourse in the past year, which experts attribute to several geopolitical reasons. Children wave Taiwan's national flags during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chiang Ying-ying

VANCOUVER — Somewhere at the confluence of politics, commerce and shared values driving a recent wave of Canadian fascination with Taiwan, there were the island's "freedom pineapples."

In 2021, imports of the fruit enjoyed a spike in interest internationally when China banned them from its market.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry urged "like-minded friends" around the world to stand up to China by buying "freedom pineapples," and the phenomenon took off.

At Kuohua Trading Co., a Taiwanese supermarket in Richmond, B.C., a member of the sales staff said on Friday that while they only imported a small number of pineapples during the campaign, they sold quickly and created word-of-mouth advertising on social media. 

"Word spreads quickly online," she said. 

Overall Canadian trade with Taiwan is up sharply. There has also been a spate of visits by Canadian politicians, despite a lack of formal diplomatic relations. 

Canada-China ties might be chilly, but Taiwan — which split from mainland China amid a civil war in 1949 — is hot right now.

Lihsin Angel Liu, director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver and Taiwan's main representative in Western Canada, said part of that is "sympathy" since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

She said she had seen more willingness from Canadian officials to engage Taiwan since the pandemic — albeit with the One China Policy as a guiding framework. The policy dating back to 1970 recognizes the People's Republic as the sole legitimate government of China, but doesn't endorse or challenge its positions on Taiwan.

The Communist government of China regards Taiwan as a renegade province.

"My experience … is that anything I do involves the China factor," Liu said. "So international participation, Canada-Taiwan relations, provincial level, federal level, Canadians do care about their relationship with China, especially the PRC authority. 

"However, because of the Ukrainian war, I think we have earned a lot of sympathy, and we have earned a lot of support from the European countries as well as from Canadian government. Our bilateral ties (are) progressing in a very flexible way, in a very tangible way that we see as a positive direction to push forward."

In October, Canada and Taiwan completed negotiations of a foreign investment promotion and protection arrangement, or FIPA, a major bilateral deal that's expected to spur more economic links.

Canada’s trade with Taiwan has already ballooned in recent years. According to Statistics Canada, Canadian exports to Taiwan have grown 53 per cent from $1.7 billion in 2017 to $2.6 billion last year. 

Canadian imports from Taiwan, meanwhile, are up 76 per cent from $5.4 billion in 2017 to $9.5 billion in 2022.

The Canadian International Council think tank holds regular discussions on foreign topics among its 18 branches.

The most popular subjects this year have been Russia-Ukraine with 13 discussions, and the United States with 11. 

But outpacing heavy hitters such as China (two) and India (four) was Taiwan, which took centre stage at seven sessions.

Chris Kilford, president of the think tank's Victoria branch, said Canadian interest in the self-governing island has risen recently. 

He said that's partly due to speculation about China's intentions in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"Once we saw the invasion take place in February of 2022, in the media especially people began to wonder if China might attempt to invade Taiwan," Kilford said. 

"So naturally amongst our members and within the Canadian public, there were a lot of questions about this."

Since October 2022, four groups of Canadian parliamentarians have visited Taiwan's political leaders — including three this year. There were no documented parliamentary visits in 2019 and one in 2018.

There haven't been any Canadian parliamentarian visits to China since the pandemic, according to activities recorded by the Canada-China Legislative Association. When federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault visited Beijing this year, it was Canada's first ministerial visit since 2019.

Those numbers are not coincidental, said Hugh Stephens, who is a distinguished fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

"It's not that relations with Taiwan improve as relations with China decline," Stephens said. 

"It's not a direct inverse relationship, but we all have to admit that there is a factor there. 

"So the fact that Canada-China relations are, I guess you could probably call them in the deep freeze, that provides a little more headroom, perhaps a little more policy space to not be quite so concerned about Beijing's reaction as long as we stay within the confines of the (One China Policy)."

In a March report in the House of Commons, the special committee on the Canada-PRC relationship recommended a number of steps in Ottawa's engagement with Taiwan, including "encouraging visits by parliamentary delegations" and exploring "opportunities to collaborate with Taiwan's semiconductor industry to enhance innovation in Canada."

On the military front, a Canadian frigate this year accompanied U.S. naval vessels sailing through the Taiwan Strait on multiple occasions, the latest in November.

Last year, Canada launched its Indo-Pacific Strategy as a "comprehensive road map" of future engagement in Asia. It mentioned Taiwan seven times, in topics such as Indigenous reconciliation and economic co-operation, and the Taiwan Strait a further three times.

"That's pretty unusual because generally, we tended to do our deals with Taiwan but not make too much fuss about it, to do it quietly," Stephens said. "There's no attempt to hide our interest in Taiwan (in the strategy)."

Taiwanese tycoon Nelson Chang was in Maple Ridge, B.C., last month to announce a new billion-dollar lithium-ion battery factory.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne were by his side.

While Chang didn't mention geopolitics or China during his speech, he did emphasize shared values as one of the key reasons his company, E-One Moli Energy, decided to expand in Canada.

"We believe that human freedom is a chance for us to do good for others and appreciating life’s fleeting nature, to leave a positive impact on the world," Chang said.

"Despite the challenges we face today, we have the power to choose a path that will lead to a better future."

Liu said the E-One Moli announcement received significant attention in Taiwan, and hopes it inspires others in the green energy sector to explore working with Canada.

"The world economy is turning from globalization to friend-shoring, near-shoring or just to do business with the countries you share the same values with," she said. "So Canada is doing (it) the same way."

But challenges remain for Taiwan on the international stage.

The island has been unsuccessful gaining admission to groupings such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc and the World Health Organization.

Liu said her recent visit to Prairie provinces confirmed that many Canadians still view Taiwan through the lens of China and its immense economic influence.

"I talked to one of the mainstream media representatives (there), and he admitted … people in the Prairie provinces probably pay less attention except when it’s related to their canola exports to China, because it’s related to their daily lives, their income, their revenue," Liu said.

Taiwan is Canada's 12th largest trade partner with total trade in 2022 reaching $12 billion, while trade with China — Canada's second largest partner — accounted for $129 billion in the same time period.

Stephens said it's likely the Canada-Taiwan equation will always involve calculations about China, and ties between Ottawa and Beijing won't always be so chilly. Relations were driven down by the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in 2018 and Beijing's subsequent arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

However, Stephens said there was "no going back" on the new wave of engagement with Taiwan — as long at it stays within the flexible ambiguity of the One China Policy.

"It's filling up the vacant policy space at a time when it's perhaps a little bit easier to do because of the coolness of Canada-China relations," he said.

"Once that policy space has been filled up and Canada-China relations resume their pace, I don't see a rolling back. It has to be a new accommodation to those realities."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2023.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press