Defence minister denies withholding funds for security conference over Taiwan award

Canada's defence minister has denied withholding funding from a major security conference over its plan to give Taiwan's president a major international award. Harjit Sajjan says the Halifax Security Forum can bestow the prize on anyone it wishes.

Harjit Sajjan says he will 'take a look' at providing renewed funding for Halifax Security Forum next year

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen celebrates her victory in the island's elections with supporters in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (Chiang Ying-yin/The Associated Press)

When the funding renewal for the Halifax Security Forum comes up later this year, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan promised a House of Commons committee that he'll "take a look at it."

He vigorously denied a report by Politico, a U.S.-based publication, that the Liberal government was threatening to pull funding from one of this country's marquee defence and security conferences because it was looking at giving Taiwan's president a prestigious award.

"That is absolutely false," Sajjan told the Canada-China Relations committee late Monday. 

"The Halifax International Security Forum is an independent organization and they make their own choices with regards to the awards."

Politico reported, citing multiple sources, that late last year the forum's organizers elected to give its John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service to Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan — a decision that was approved by the late U.S. senator's wife, Cindy McCain, a member of the forum's board of directors.

Canadian officials, upon learning of the decision, made it clear the Canadian government would pull its support if organizers gave the honour to Tsai, Politico reported.

Taiwan has been the focus of increasing international tension in recent years. China considers the island to be a renegade province and has made reunification — by force if necessary — a major policy objective. Beijing has leveraged diplomatic pressure to try and isolate Taiwan and has criticized countries who maintain close relations with the island.

Conference controversy 

A spokesperson for  Halifax Security Forum said late Monday that it has not yet announced the winner of the 2020 John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service, but looks forward to making the announcement at an appropriate time.

"President Tsai of Taiwan is a well respected international leader, the first female president of Taiwan, and a strong global advocate for democracy. She would certainly be an ideal fit for this award," said Robin Shepherd, vice-president of the Forum.

Originally set up under the previous Conservative government but continued under the Liberals, the gathering of top security officials was praised by Sajjan as raising the level of geopolitical dialogue in this country.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in an interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on Dec. 17, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

He denied threatening to withhold funding and said he approved two tranches of funding for the event last year, but declined to commit to a renewal for this year.

"When the funding request comes to me, as it does every year, I have stated I will take a look at it," said Sajjan, who made a distinction between the security conference and the Forum, which is headquartered in Washington and is populated, as he put it, "with former Conservative staffers."

That was enough for Conservative MP John Williamson to accuse Sajjan of looking for reasons to kill the event, which was the brainchild of former defence minister and Nova Scotia native Peter MacKay.

Asked whether he supported the idea of giving the award to Tsai, Sajjan declined to take a stand.

"It's an independent organization and they make a decision accordingly, by themselves," he said at the beginning of the late evening meeting.

Taiwan respects Forum decision

Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) weighed in earlier Monday, saying it will respect whatever decision the forum makes about the awarding of the prize.

"MOFA believes that if the Halifax International Security Forum (HFX) confers the prize upon President Tsai, it would be an affirmation and honor for both President Tsai and the people of Taiwan in their anti-pandemic efforts and democratic achievements," MOFA spokesperson Joanne Ou was quoted as saying on the web site Focus Taiwan, an English-language media outlet. 

Over the last couple of weeks, the Chinese navy and air force have conducted major exercises in and around Taiwan, a show of force to test western allies, including the U.S., which has for decades committed itself to the defence of the island.

The Liberal government has tip-toed around the issue of Taiwan, not wanting to further strain relations with Beijing following the December 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive on behalf the U.S., which accuses her of fraud.

In apparent retaliation, China arrested two Canadians and has since charged them with espionage.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.