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One hundred generations ago, ambassadors from Athens were dispatched to the Greek island of Melos. Athens was the most powerful of Greece’s city states, and it was at war with Sparta. It demanded that small, neutral Melos take its side in the conflict – or else be invaded and conquered.

The ancient historian Thucydides writes that the Melians responded to this ultimatum with outrage and moral indignation. It was, they said, unjust and illegal. But the Athenians replied that law and morality were irrelevant. They wanted something from Melos, and they were going to take it. Why? Because they could. Be realistic, they told the Melians. This is the way of the world.

“The strong do what they can,” said the Athenian emissaries, “and the weak suffer what they must.”

If you want to understand why the People’s Republic of China has tried to meddle in Canadian affairs, you will find few more useful answers than that offered by what’s known as the Melian Dialogue. Beijing is aggressively pursuing what it believes are its interests, and not just in Canada. It also believes it has the strength to get much of what it wants, and to bid for it with costs less than the expected benefits.

Beijing’s actions – hostage-taking in the case of the Two Michaels; evidence that it tried to influence Canadian elections; alleged attempts at putting pressure on politicians critical of China such as Conservative MP Michael Chong – are of course inappropriate and outrageous. Ottawa has to protest, loudly, and it has to push back. But as the people of Melos learned, citing the appropriate sections of the Boy Scout handbook, as Ottawa often does, is not necessarily a winning argument. Power is the winning argument.

China’s leaders have bought into the brutal logic of the Melian Dialogue because their history has taught them its lessons. China spent two centuries as a weak country that could not resist the strong who were more technologically advanced and better organized. In the 19th century, European powers forced it to cede ports such as Hong Kong. Russia bit off big chunks of formerly Chinese land. From 1904 to 1905, Russia and Japan fought a war over what was notionally Chinese territory, and a generation later, Japan invaded and occupied much of China.

The regime of President Xi Jinping makes sure that its people are frequently reminded of this history and also that – thanks to the guiding hand of the Communist Party of China – the country has regained its status as a superpower. Mao Zedong once said that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and with his increasingly strident language about the need for China to develop its military so that it has the option of using force to conquer Taiwan, Mr. Xi often sounds like he means to live out Mao’s dictum.

Canada has spent the last few decades living in a dream world when it comes to China. So have most other Western countries. We assumed that the rise of China offered economic benefits – it did and it does – but with no need to consider problematic side effects. We also assumed that we would influence China to become more like us. We failed to consider that, as the relative strength of the two parties evolved, China might become the influencer.

So what’s Canada to do about a relationship with China that, like it or not, we will have to navigate for years and decades and probably centuries to come? Listen to the words of those Athenian ambassadors.

When the Melians protested that Athens’ demands were legally and morally wrong, the Athenians replied that perhaps that was true. But “you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in questions between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The Athenians told the Melians that because we are so much stronger than you, we aren’t interested in hearing your arguments about what’s right or wrong, legal or illegal. But if there were more of an equality of power, it would be a different story. We’d have no choice but to listen, and to respect you.

It suggests two courses for Canada. First, we must not allow ourselves to become too dependent on trade with China. We need to cultivate other options, from Vietnam to India. Second, we need to work closely with allies who share our worries – and the Europeans, the Americans and many Asia-Pacific countries do. Together, we have the heft to insist on a relationship of mutual respect. Together, we’re not Melos.

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