The threat of China’s retaliation should not be used as an excuse for Canada to continue its weak-kneed approach to China. The time to chart a new course begins now, write Andrew Pickford and Jeffrey Collins.
By Andrew Pickford and Jeffrey Collins, March 19, 2021
Last week, US President Joe Biden joined his Japanese, Indian, and Australian counterparts at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) summit. This informal grouping remains the most powerful collection of countries focused on confronting the security, economic, and geostrategic challenges posed by China. Canada may not have been there but there is finally a growing realization across political parties and wider society that China’s actions necessitate that we stand up and stand together.
Under Xi Jinping, China has global superpower ambitions that involve undermining the international order founded by the US, Canada and other allies after the Second World War. International institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) are to be co-opted, while international laws and norms governing the law of the sea in places like the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea are to be ignored. Moreover, any foreign government that gets in the way of China’s interests quickly becomes roadkill under Beijing’s economic and (increasingly) military might.
Canada has already gotten a taste of Xi’s medicine with the kidnapping of citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in December 2018 following the detention on a US extradition request of Meng Wanzhou, deputy chair and CFO of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, days earlier. The years since have seen import bans on canola, restrictions on Maritime lobster, and the clandestine seizure of at least 100 tons of personal protective equipment in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, to name a few.
Any attempt to create a coherent strategy against Beijing’s bullying has been undermined by the quixotic belief that a unique mix of Trudeau familial history, international star power, and Laurentian business connections would lead to a blossoming in relations between Canada and China. Unfortunately, this proved to be a flimsy foundation for engagement with a China that was more authoritarian, protectionist and aggressive than the last time the Liberals were in power in the early 2000s.
It’s up to civil society to push against this visionless approach from Ottawa. In a recent study published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute last October, we argued that Canada follow the example of its Commonwealth cousin and Quad member, Australia, and take a stand against China’s bullying and human rights violations. This contribution is one of many such calls for Canada to move off the sidelines.
These efforts, combined with a growing awareness of China’s belligerence in the wake of the Kovrig and Spavor kidnappings, have led to a shift in public opinion. In June, four-out-of-five Canadians expressed a belief that Ottawa must speak up about China’s human rights abuses. A similar number believe we should be even more bullish, specifically on issues of our national values. Only 7 percent have an even moderately positive view of the PRC regime.
Acting on this groundswell, the House of Commons voted unanimously (notwithstanding abstentions and the conspicuous absence of virtually all of cabinet) to support a non-binding motion labelling Beijing’s mistreatment of its Uyghur and other ethnic Turkic Muslims as genocide. This multiparty support was a significant change and an important juncture. Even former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government in its later years in power oversaw the introduction of a foreign investment agreement with China, has warned that Beijing is now a “competitive rival” against Western interests.
Yet, despite the emergence of such a strong consensus, Ottawa continues to deal with China indecisively. Welcomed ad-hoc efforts like the recent Canada-led coalition of countries opposed to arbitrary detention are offset by actions like the split between the Liberal caucus and cabinet over the Uyghur motion, or ambassador Dominic Barton’s 2020 bizarre push for more trade ties at a time when a world away, UN ambassador Bob Rae called for an investigation into China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
With the international community acting and the political and public spheres in Canada in political unison, Ottawa should finally transition this broad support for a coherent strategy on China into concrete action. China, after all, does not respect weakness.
This starts with revitalizing a Canadian vision in the Indo-Pacific, identifying those areas in which Canada can be a meaningful partner for other countries in the region, like Australia, that are more assertive in their approach to China. Canada is unlikely to be taken seriously today as a potential member of an expanded Quad, but it can move toward greater integration, perhaps as an observer.
Following Australia’s approach, we recommend that Ottawa ban Huawei; revisit Canada’s interpretation of the One China Policy on Taiwan; review our involvement in international organizations, much as Australia has done (and potentially defund if Beijing’s interference continues); delink Kovrig and Spavor from other issues; and adopt a new coordinated China strategy with provinces, territories and municipalities. A wider Commonwealth alliance with Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (CANZUK) in confronting Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong should be in the cards too.
It is important to stress that these actions are directed at the Chinese Communist Party. As Australia has experienced, a strategic and firm stance against Beijing’s coercion will not be without challenges. Retaliation is almost guaranteed but this should not be hard for Canada. It is harder for Australia where China accounts for half of all exports, as opposed to less than 4 percent for Canada, and is making inroads into areas within Canberra’s sphere of influence including Melanesia and the South Pacific.
Put simply, there is more at stake for Canberra than Ottawa. Yet that has not deterred the Australians from confronting Chinese bullying. Similarly, the threat of China’s retaliation should not be used as an excuse for Canada to continue its weak-kneed approach to China. The time to chart a new course begins now.
Andrew Pickford works between North America and Australia in the areas of strategy, economic analysis, and energy with a range of organizations, both private and public.
Jeffrey F. Collins is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, as well as a research fellow with the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University, and the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.