Canada denies it threatened Halifax Security Forum over proposed Taiwan award


OTTAWA — Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan denied late Monday that the Trudeau government threatened to withhold funding from a top international defense gathering over the organizers’ plan to give a major award to the president of Taiwan.

His denial comes a day after POLITICO reported that Canadian officials told organizers of the Halifax International Security Forum late last year that the government would pull its support from the event if the John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service went to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

During a virtual appearance Monday night before a special parliamentary committee, Sajjan was asked directly by Conservative MP James Bezan if he threatened to withhold funding from the forum over the plan to honor Tsai.

“No, in fact, I authorized funding for the Halifax International Security Forum twice last year,” the minister told the committee.

Sajjan, however, declined to answer when pressed several times whether he would endorse Tsai for such an accolade.

His statements to the committee came several days after his office declined to deny the story.

The minister added that the organization behind the forum is independent and makes its own decisions when it comes to awards.

The backstory: Multiple sources familiar with the matter said organizers decided to give the 2020 award to Tsai. Cindy McCain, a member of the forum’s board of directors, approved the decision to honor Tsai with the prize named after her late husband.

When Canadian officials learned of the plans, they made it clear if organizers gave the award to Tsai, the Canadian government would yank its support — and funding — from HFX.

In the end, the 2020 event last fall did not hand out the award.

Sajjan’s first response: Sajjan’s office was given 24 hours late last week to respond to questions about the threat over the award intended for Tsai.

A spokesperson for Sajjan would not confirm or deny whether the Trudeau government threatened to pull out of the forum over the plan.

“The Government of Canada has provided financial support through a contribution agreement with the Halifax International Security Forum,” Sajjan’s spokesperson Todd Lane wrote in an email to POLITICO. “While financial support has been provided, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces are not involved in the planning of the Forum. The organizers reach out to us, as well as many other organizations, for panelists on various topics and we try to support when appropriate.”

Committee showdown on HFX: Later in Monday’s hearing, a testy exchange suggested the minister has concerns about the organization behind the forum.

It started when Conservative MP John Williamson asked Sajjan what he thought about HFX.

“I want to make sure you’re talking about the Halifax International Security Forum, not their office that they have in Washington. Is that correct?” Sajjan asked before getting an affirmative answer from Williamson. “Good, so just the event itself, not the office and not the employees that are former Conservative staffers that actually work in that office? Is that correct?”

Williamson accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals of looking for ways to defund HFX because, he said, it was created by their Conservative predecessors.

He asked Sajjan to commit that he would continue to fund the forum regardless of what award is presented or not at its next meeting.

“When the funding request comes to me, as it does every year, I will take a look at it,” Sajjan replied. “I’ve given my public endorsement for the … forum.”

The context: Ottawa has avoided provoking Beijing after tensions spiked in December 2018, when Canadian authorities arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the U.S. Beijing, enraged by Meng’s arrest, has demanded her release. Meng, accused of breaking U.S. international sanctions against Iran, has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting extradition.

In an apparent retaliation, China arrested two Canadians just days later and has since charged them with spying.

Taiwan’s status: 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 damaged Taiwan’s economy and fed fears of an invasion.

Taiwan, under Tsai’s leadership, has seen only 10 Covid-19 deaths during the pandemic out of its nearly 24 million people. In January 2020, Tsai won a landslide reelection against a rival who wanted closer ties with Beijing.

The Chinese government does not recognize Taiwan’s independence and has long sought control of the dynamic island democracy. Beijing has worked to undermine international recognition of Taiwan.

A spokesperson for Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Monday that receiving the John McCain Prize “would be an affirmation and honor for both President Tsai and the people of Taiwan” for their efforts fighting the pandemic and their democratic achievements.

“However, on the basis of democratic principles and respect for the HFX, Taiwan will respect the HFX’s decision regarding the prize,” foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said in response to POLITICO’s reporting, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

Conservative criticism: The controversy was raised Monday during Question Period in the House of Commons. Michael Chong, the Conservatives’ parliamentary critic for foreign affairs, later said in a statement that awarding the McCain award to Tsai for standing up against pressure from Beijing would have sent a strong message to China that “the free world is united against their bullying tactics.”

“Instead of supporting the people of Taiwan, the Trudeau Liberals have threatened to pull support from the forum if the organizers went ahead with the award,” Chong said. “This attempt to silence those critical of China is shameful.”

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OTTAWA — Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan denied late Monday that the Trudeau government threatened to withhold funding from a top international defense gathering over the organizers’ plan to give a major award to the president of Taiwan.

His denial comes a day after POLITICO reported that Canadian officials told organizers of the Halifax International Security Forum late last year that the government would pull its support from the event if the John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service went to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

During a virtual appearance Monday night before a special parliamentary committee, Sajjan was asked directly by Conservative MP James Bezan if he threatened to withhold funding from the forum over the plan to honor Tsai.

“No, in fact, I authorized funding for the Halifax International Security Forum twice last year,” the minister told the committee.

Sajjan, however, declined to answer when pressed several times whether he would endorse Tsai for such an accolade.

His statements to the committee came several days after his office declined to deny the story.

The minister added that the organization behind the forum is independent and makes its own decisions when it comes to awards.

The backstory: Multiple sources familiar with the matter said organizers decided to give the 2020 award to Tsai. Cindy McCain, a member of the forum’s board of directors, approved the decision to honor Tsai with the prize named after her late husband.

When Canadian officials learned of the plans, they made it clear if organizers gave the award to Tsai, the Canadian government would yank its support — and funding — from HFX.

In the end, the 2020 event last fall did not hand out the award.

Sajjan’s first response: Sajjan’s office was given 24 hours late last week to respond to questions about the threat over the award intended for Tsai.

A spokesperson for Sajjan would not confirm or deny whether the Trudeau government threatened to pull out of the forum over the plan.

“The Government of Canada has provided financial support through a contribution agreement with the Halifax International Security Forum,” Sajjan’s spokesperson Todd Lane wrote in an email to POLITICO. “While financial support has been provided, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces are not involved in the planning of the Forum. The organizers reach out to us, as well as many other organizations, for panelists on various topics and we try to support when appropriate.”

Committee showdown on HFX: Later in Monday’s hearing, a testy exchange suggested the minister has concerns about the organization behind the forum.

It started when Conservative MP John Williamson asked Sajjan what he thought about HFX.

“I want to make sure you’re talking about the Halifax International Security Forum, not their office that they have in Washington. Is that correct?” Sajjan asked before getting an affirmative answer from Williamson. “Good, so just the event itself, not the office and not the employees that are former Conservative staffers that actually work in that office? Is that correct?”

Williamson accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals of looking for ways to defund HFX because, he said, it was created by their Conservative predecessors.

He asked Sajjan to commit that he would continue to fund the forum regardless of what award is presented or not at its next meeting.

“When the funding request comes to me, as it does every year, I will take a look at it,” Sajjan replied. “I’ve given my public endorsement for the … forum.”

The context: Ottawa has avoided provoking Beijing after tensions spiked in December 2018, when Canadian authorities arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the U.S. Beijing, enraged by Meng’s arrest, has demanded her release. Meng, accused of breaking U.S. international sanctions against Iran, has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting extradition.

In an apparent retaliation, China arrested two Canadians just days later and has since charged them with spying.

Taiwan’s status: 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 damaged Taiwan’s economy and fed fears of an invasion.

Taiwan, under Tsai’s leadership, has seen only 10 Covid-19 deaths during the pandemic out of its nearly 24 million people. In January 2020, Tsai won a landslide reelection against a rival who wanted closer ties with Beijing.

The Chinese government does not recognize Taiwan’s independence and has long sought control of the dynamic island democracy. Beijing has worked to undermine international recognition of Taiwan.

A spokesperson for Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Monday that receiving the John McCain Prize “would be an affirmation and honor for both President Tsai and the people of Taiwan” for their efforts fighting the pandemic and their democratic achievements.

“However, on the basis of democratic principles and respect for the HFX, Taiwan will respect the HFX’s decision regarding the prize,” foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said in response to POLITICO’s reporting, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

Conservative criticism: The controversy was raised Monday during Question Period in the House of Commons. Michael Chong, the Conservatives’ parliamentary critic for foreign affairs, later said in a statement that awarding the McCain award to Tsai for standing up against pressure from Beijing would have sent a strong message to China that “the free world is united against their bullying tactics.”

“Instead of supporting the people of Taiwan, the Trudeau Liberals have threatened to pull support from the forum if the organizers went ahead with the award,” Chong said. “This attempt to silence those critical of China is shameful.”

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