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China scolds Canada over Parliament’s support of Halifax Security Forum award to Taiwan

Canada’s MPs weigh in: A nonbinding motion, adopted unanimously Wednesday by MPs, called President Tsai Ing-wen a “well-respected international leader, female president of Taiwan and a strong global advocate for democracy.” The statement, introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong, also said she would “certainly be an ideal fit” for the Halifax International Security Forum’s signature award.

The development came a few days after POLITICO reported that Canadian officials told organizers of the forum that Canada would withdraw its support for the event if its flagship John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service went to Tsai. Canada is a top sponsor of the forum.

The parliamentary motion also directed the Canadian government to maintain its funding for the defense forum at current levels, even if Tsai were to receive the John McCain Prize.

Trudeau’s challenge: The timing is complicated for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been trying for more than two years to secure the release of two Canadians he says are arbitrarily imprisoned in China on “trumped-up” charges.

Canada-China diplomatic relations nose-dived after the arrest of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver’s airport in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition warrant. Beijing has called the move political and demanded her release.

Meng, whose father founded the Chinese telecom giant, is accused of breaking U.S. international sanctions against Iran. She has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting extradition.

Days after Meng’s arrest, Chinese authorities seized Canadians Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on leave, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur. The men were tried separately last month on espionage charges and are awaiting their verdicts and, very likely, their sentences.

The global context: Much like the U.S., Canada’s “One China” policy means Ottawa doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, nor does it maintain official relations with Taiwanese government.

In recent months, Beijing has targeted Taiwan with a hybrid warfare campaign, including election interference, cyberattacks and drone intrusions into its airspace. The offensive has hurt the Taiwanese economy and fed fears of a full-blown invasion.

The HFX controversy: The Trudeau government, which has shied away from provoking Beijing since the Kovrig and Spavor arrests, appeared uncomfortable with such an award being given to Tsai at an Ottawa-sponsored conference in Canada.

Multiple sources familiar with the matter told POLITICO that HFX organizers decided to give the 2020 award to Tsai. Cindy McCain, a member of the forum’s board of directors, backed the decision to honor Tsai with the prize named after her late husband.

The forum’s website says the John McCain Prize is bestowed annually to individuals from any country “who have demonstrated uncommon leadership in the pursuit of human justice.”

When Canadian officials were told of the plan, sources say they made it clear if the award went to Tsai, the Canadian government would pull its support — and funding — from the forum.

Committee crossfire: Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office initially declined to deny or confirm POLITICO’s report.

But on Monday, while under questioning by a parliamentary committee, Sajjan denied that the Trudeau government threatened to withhold funding over the organizers’ plan for the award.

Sajjan also declined to answer when pressed by his Conservative opponents to say if he would endorse Tsai for such a prize. The minister said that HFX is independent and free to make its own decisions when it comes to awards.

When asked whether he would commit to maintaining financial support for the forum regardless of who received its prizes, Sajjan would only say that he would take a look at the funding request as he does every year.

The PM’s reponse: Each day this week, Trudeau’s Liberal government has been questioned about the HFX story in the House of Commons.

Before the vote on the motion, Trudeau himself was pressed Wednesday by Chong to commit to maintaining HFX funding, even if organizers awarded the John McCain Prize to Tsai.

“The government has supported and provided funding to the Halifax Security Forum throughout our time in office, and the minister has participated every year and will continue to,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister continued by saying that he has always supported Taiwan’s “meaningful participation in multilateral international forums.”

“Canada continues to have strong and growing trade and people-to-people relations with Taiwan,” he said.

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