Canada’s policy towards Beijing was evidently too sensitive to handle during the recent election campaign; the prime minister turned down a foreign policy leaders' debate. But now it is time to ask hard questions about what is in our national interest, writes Charles Burton. 

By Charles Burton, November 29, 2019

Canada’s policy on China was evidently too sensitive to handle during the recent election campaign; the Munk Centre’s scheduled foreign policy debate was cancelled after Justin Trudeau refused to appear.

But now it is new beginnings for a new government, time to reflect on the horrendous failures of our past engagement with China, time to do the necessary re-set in Canada’s national interest.

Against this desperate need for an open national debate, it is disappointing to see our government engaging in closed-door policy discussions led by Peter Harder (the government leader in the Senate), current and former senior officials of Global Affairs Canada, academics who favour engagement on Beijing’s terms, and business leaders with lucrative connections to Chinese Communist business networks closed to public scrutiny.

On Nov. 19, the Public Policy Forum (lead partner: government of Canada) charged stakeholders in Canada-China relations $900 to access a one-day workshop and dinner in Ottawa, called “China and the Policy Implications of a new Cold War.” The pricey registration fee would be well beyond the budget of Canadian Tibetan, Uyghur or China human rights NGO activists, or Canadian media outlets. That would effectively mute voices who would like to know how Canada will address the cultural genocide of Turkic Muslims in China’s northwest, or the fate of the 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong, or when Canada will take strong measures to convince China to release Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

The PPF’s mandate is to “write a more sophisticated narrative for Canadians,” leading to “a more nuanced engagement” — evidently a mysterious doctrine best developed without wider participation.

The narrative that PPF is developing is that “the rise of China is bending the arc of history,” so Canada must “adjust rapidly to changing geopolitical realities arguably as profound as anything since the rise of the United States challenged the dominance of the British Empire in the late 19th century.” This rhetoric is certainly not based on sound comparative historiography, but it is in perfect harmony with that articulated by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He demands that Canada join China’s “community of the common destiny of mankind” and support China’s rebuild of global trade infrastructure by participating in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” because as the U.S. declines, China will become the new global hegemon.

In other words, Canada should get with the program, because, as former Liberal cabinet stalwart Martin Cauchon said regarding Huawei’s expansion, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” But China does not have a record of trust in upholding international agreements. Once Huawei is installed, billions of dollars later, any Chinese commitment to allow Canadian monitoring of Huawei systems to ensure they are not being used to purloin data, or threaten Canadian critical infrastructure, is likely to be revoked. And there won’t be much we can do about it.

On Nov. 20, the day after the workshop, François-Philippe Champagne was appointed minister of Global Affairs, and Mary Ng was named minister of International Trade. Both are extensively on the record saying trade should be Canada’s priority for engaging China. What about concerns over China’s espionage and covert political influence activities in Canada, and Canadians’ alarm about engaging with a régime complicit in human rights violations against its own people, violating sovereignty in the South China Sea and using economic leverage to serve Beijing’s authoritarian political and strategic purposes? Such concerns must go by the wayside, because China has made clear it will not expand trade with Canada otherwise.

So now, the same policymakers who got it so very wrong on China in the past are setting Canada’s China agenda for the future. The question begs: What more does the Chinese Communist régime have to do to convince us that our “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” appeasement of China is actually disastrous to Canada’s domestic and global interests?

What we need is uncompromised, Canadian, level-headed good sense to be brought into play. Let’s hope that happens before it is too late.

Charles Burton is Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad. He is a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.

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