In a perfect world we would all get along. We may have our differences and we may not always agree on actions to take (or not to take) but we would muddle through.
In the real world, which is far from perfect, matters are quite different. Nations do not see eye to eye on many issues and these disagreements have led, in the worst case scenarios, to conflict and even war (on two occasions on a world-wide scale).
In response to this reality, alliances have formed. These unions do ebb and flow over time: remember when Germany was our enemy, on not only one but TWO occasions? Now it is seen as an international economic power and a pillar of stability in Europe and beyond.
During the Cold War the dominant division was between East and West. The East, led by the communist Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, faced off against the West, represented by the US and its liberal democratic friends. That ‘war’ continued for more than half a century.
‘We’ won, of course, ‘we’ being the West. The world is now the home of one remaining superpower, i.e. the US, and free, capitalist, secular democracies are seen, albeit not by all, as the best (the least bad?) way to run things. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall democracies were initially on the ascendant, even if we have witnessed a backsliding in parts of our planet. We were making progress on Earth, or so we thought.
A good club for Canada to be part of
We in Canada are part of this broader Western alliance. Whether it is our membership in the G7, our role in NATO, or our ‘5 eyes’ intelligence sharing relationships, we are squarely in this ambit. It may have its faults, but it is a good club for Canada to be part of: is there really any alternative?
Into this mix comes the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Long a bystander on the world stage, it is assuming a more and more aggressive position. Whether it is its claim to the entire South China Sea as its own (the so-called ‘nine-dash line‘ that no one else recognises), or its clampdowns in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, the PRC is rapidly turning into the schoolyard bully.
We may have once believed that the end of the Cold War bought us a ‘peace dividend’ and ended state rivalry for political and economic hegemony, but only fools still see things that way. The PRC is now viewed as a problem and a threat to international security: the US Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that China is the “greatest threat to democracy and freedom”.
To this we have to add instance where the PRC is trying to force change on other nations. In a dust-up with Australia over a fake image of a soldier killing a child in Afghanistan (Australian special forces have been accused of killing civilians in that nation), China has been unrepentant. It has arrested Australian citizens on trumped-up ‘national security’ charges and slapped tariffs on Australian goods (this is significant as Australia depends to a great deal on trade with the PRC).
Despite the potential impact on its economy, Australian officials have talked – and acted – tough on the PRC. The government has banned the use of Huawei in its 5G network and called out China for trying to influence decision-makers in Canberra. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has vowed that Australia will not “trade away” its values or respond to coercion.
Which brings me to my own country, Canada.
The Trudeau government, and others in all honesty, have been slow to criticise the PRC despite decades of warnings from security intelligence agencies of Chinese interference in our affairs, including threats to Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong residents in Canada (NB I have spoken to Uyghurs here who made credible claims to such harassment by Chinese officials).
The PRC has held the ‘two Michaels‘ (Spavor and Kovrig) since December 2018 on spurious allegations, when we all know this is retribution for Canada’s decision to arrest Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou that same month. Canada has protested, to little avail. It has yet to make a decision on Huawei’s place in our telecommunications system, despite clear statements by our other ‘5 eyes’ allies that they will not allow a PRC state firm access to their infrastructure.
To date, successive Canadian governments have been ok with pursuing economic relations with the PRC regardless of the latter’s human rights and foreign policy records. We have seen pusillanimous performances by former ambassadors and meek protests by government officials. As an ex-intelligence analyst I know that there is always a lot more going on in the background in matters such as these, but the public face has been far from adequate.
The Trudeau government may be growing a spine – finally! – when it comes to the PRC. Recent statements give me hope, however tenuous. Still, according to the Globe and Mail, Canada’s business with China appears to be thriving during the pandemic even as diplomatic relations remain in a deep freeze. And therein lies the problem. Canada has always put economics and trade ahead of everything else when it comes to the PRC. We did not want to ‘wake the dragon’ when we had ill-advisedly tied so much of our trade to China.
To be fair, Liberal government MPs are not the only ones dropping the ball on the PRC. In a hearkening back to the ‘useful idiots’ of the Cold War, NDP MP Niki Ashton and Green MP Paul Manly appeared at a recent ‘free Meng’ event in which not only were there calls for Meng’s immediate release but demands that the government “protect Canadian jobs” by allowing Huawei to participate in the roll-out of 5G in Canada, and carry out a foreign policy review to develop an “independent” foreign policy on China (you really should read the National Post’s John Ivison piece on this).
What to make of all this?
To anyone listening: the PRC is not our ‘friend’. Under Xi Jinping it is a rising power that believes only in the use of force to get its way. Through its ‘belt-road initiative‘ it is establishing ‘facts on the ground’ and will come to dominate infrastructure and trade routes in parts of the world far from China. Its crackdowns on the Uyghurs, Hong Kong residents and even the memory of Genghis Khan will continue unabated. It is even buying up Western high-tech firms. Its over-the-top reactions to criticism of any kind will not end.
We as liberal democracies have a choice to make. While cognizant that the wellbeing of millions of our citizens depends on having a viable economic relationship with the PRC – that we allowed this situation to occur in the first place is a whole other issue! – we need to stand up for what is right.
Are you ready to do that Canada?