When will the government wake up about China?

Canada is still considering Huawei as a supplier of 5G, despite the opposition of some of our allies, including the U.S. Should the Trudeau government choose Huawei, there could be real implications for intelligence sharing.

This contribution appeared on The Hills Times on March 16, 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — When I was a kid growing up in Southwestern Ontario (London) there was one thing that was indisputable: if something bore the label ‘Made in China’ it was cheap. Really cheap. And probably not worth keeping around.

My how times have changed!

Now ‘Made in China’ is no longer an insult. The PRC has become not only a major economic power, one whose goods we appear to be unable to live without, but also a growing political power, one that cannot be ignored. China has indeed arrived (can we please stop writing the phrase “a rising China”?).

It is thus important for any serious state, and that includes us in Canada, to have relations with China, at both the political and economic levels. Ignoring almost one-fifth of the planet’s total population and a country whose GDP hovers around one-seventh is just bad policy.

CSIS Director David Vigneault, pictured at the House Public Safety Committee on the Hill on May 13, 2019.

But can we in Canada not do this better?

Canada is still considering Huawei as a supplier of 5G despite the opposition of some of our allies, including the US. Should the Trudeau government choose Huawei there could be real implications for intelligence sharing.

And don’t get me started on China’s continued incarceration of the ‘two Michaels’ (Kovrig and Spavor) and its gulag for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang Province. I was at a recent military conference at the Chateau Laurier where the Chinese ambassador to Canada called the story ‘fake news’ and repeated the whopper that these were ‘vocational training centres’ (for the record there was audible laughter when he made these comments: I had to leave the room in disgust).

Ignoring China is not an option but deciding to kowtow to it is.

Despite all this the Canadian government appears to have been in a bromance with the PRC, even at Global Affairs Canada (GAC). But the tide may be changing. GAC has now warned the government that deepening ties with China is not a great idea and that the ‘authoritarian state’ now represents a strategic challenge to Canadian values and interests.

Gee, CSIS said that over a decade ago.

As far back as the late 2000s my former employer warned the Canadian government about the danger that China poses to Canadian national security. The current Director, David Vigneault, has stated that “CSIS assesses that China represents the most significant and clear challenge for (human-enabled espionage) targeted against Canada’s universities.” And so on.

In this time of COVID-19, we have enough to worry about without freaking out about terrorism!

Even ISIS is afraid of COVID-19, suggesting we may not see an uptick in attacks seeking to take advantage of a possible skeleton crew in security and intelligence agencies.

The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and governments are having a hard time keeping up with strategies to respond and react effectively to keep their citizenry safe. Read more about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and its ties with terrorism.

It is time to take off the rose-coloured glasses

China is indeed engaged in actions within its borders (Uyghurs), in its neighbourhood (its aggressive ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea) and globally (the One Belt One Road Initiative) that are most definitely NOT in our interests. It is time to take off the rose-coloured glasses and see China for what it is: a bully. And what do you do with a schoolground bully? Well, you sure as heck don’t kowtow to him in the hopes things will improve.

As I have written before, foreign relations are hard to manage. Pretending China is not there is not a good idea either. Canada needs to work with its allies to push back against China’s aggression. And it needs to listen more to its security intelligence agency when told about China’s meddling in our internal affairs.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst at CSIS and the Director of the Security, Economics and Technology program at the University of Ottawa.

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