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opinion

François-Philippe Champagne, like the government he belongs to, has made a complete U-turn regarding Canada’s relationship with China. Once an unabashed booster of closer ties with Beijing, the federal Innovation Minister now talks about the need to “decouple” from the communist country as it pursues a strategy of economic and military dominance vis-à-vis the West.

“What we want is certainly a decoupling, certainly from China and certainly from other regimes in the world which don’t share the same values,” Mr. Champagne said last week at an event in Washington, where he travelled to meet with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

His comments amounted to a total repudiation of those he made in 2017, when, as international trade minister, Mr. Champagne championed the negotiation of a Canada-China free-trade agreement and launched “exploratory discussions” on an FTA with Beijing.

“Today, there are few places that offer us as many exciting opportunities for expanding growth and prosperity through trade and investment as the Asia-Pacific region, and especially China,” he said back then. “As one of the largest, fastest growing economies in the world, China is an important part of the global economy, and an important partner for Canada.”

By 2020, on the heels of China’s detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and Beijing’s move to block Canadian canola and pork imports (both in retaliation for this country’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant), it fell to Mr. Champagne as foreign affairs minister at the time to scrap the idea of a Canada-China FTA.

“The China of 2020 is not the China of 2016,” Mr. Champagne offered then.

It would take another 18 months for Ottawa to officially ban Huawei from participating in this country’s 5G networks, after what Mr. Champagne called “a full review by our security agencies and in consultation with our closest allies.” But the government stopped short of broader measures aimed at shutting China out of Canadian high-technology supply chains.

The joint readout of Mr. Champagne’s meeting at the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), however, suggests Canada is facing heightened pressure to join the United States in restricting China’s access to Western technologies that could further its economic and military objectives.

Ms. Raimondo, the readout noted, “underscored the U.S.’s commitment to Canada-U.S. supply chain security in the semi-conductor industry. … This includes efforts to strengthen domestic research and development, commercialize emerging technologies and innovations in these areas, and bolster manufacturing capacity in both countries to support the two nations’ mutual goals for supply chain resilience and industry competitiveness.”

Her statement followed the DOC’s move this month to impose unprecedented export controls on U.S. semi-conductor chips and chip-making equipment. The measures aim to prevent China from obtaining advanced computing chips and applications that incorporate U.S. technology, regardless of where they are invented or made. The move will have broad-ranging implications for U.S. allies, including Canada, which seeks to become a world leader in artificial intelligence.

China “has poured resources into developing supercomputing capabilities and seeks to become a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. It is using these capabilities to monitor, track and surveil their own citizens, and fuel its military modernization,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce Thea D. Rozman Kendler said in announcing the export controls. “Our actions will protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests while also sending a clear message that U.S. technological leadership is about values as well as innovation.”

Jonathan Berkshire Miller, director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said he sees the DOC’s move to choke off China’s access to U.S. semi-conductor technology “as just the beginning of a range of technology-decoupling” measures by the United States that will inevitably affect Canadian tech companies and researchers. “Canada has to get a lot more adept about who we’re working with by broadening our relationships with South Korea, Taiwan and Japan to be more integrated with those countries rather than China.”

Indeed, Mr. Miller added, the U.S.-led effort to restrict Chinese access to semi-conductor technology dovetails with efforts to reduce China’s dominance of critical-mineral supply chains.

Mr. Champagne has signalled that Canada will apply “enhanced scrutiny” to prospective foreign investment in the development of critical minerals in this country as Ottawa and Washington co-ordinate policies aimed at enhancing North American battery manufacturing.

“Let’s be clear, we will not compromise on national security issues. That is our top priority,” he said in January. “The national security review framework built into the [Investment Canada Act] is a critical tool that allows us to protect Canada from these threats.”

China’s Global Times newspaper ridiculed Mr. Champagne’s call for a decoupling from China, saying it was “not news” to hear a Canadian official “parrot Washington’s talking points.” It dismissed his comments “as a signal that Canada wants to be a cannon fodder of the U.S.’s strategy of containing China, which is irresponsible for the troubled Canadian economy.”

After this, there can be no going back to 2017 for Mr. Champagne, or for Canada.