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Former diplomat Michael Kovrig gestures after arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Sept. 25.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Guy Saint-Jacques served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016.

The return of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to Canada should be celebrated as they were unfortunate pawns in the geopolitical contest between China and the United States. Let’s hope that they can get back to a normal life quickly ‒ and that Canada was not forced to agree to egregious demands from China to guarantee their release.

As we take stock of this sad episode, we have to look at our China policy from the perspectives of security, trade and co-operation. The starting point should be the defence and protection of our values and interests. As trust has been broken, future Canadian engagement with China will have to be a lot more selective to areas that serve our interest, and be implemented in a consistent manner.

Canada needs to recover its voice. Ottawa must call China into question when it transgresses obligations undertaken through international treaties. This includes problems such as the trampling of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, the militarization of the South China Sea, the undue pressure on Taiwan and Beijing’s refusal to collaborate with the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the case of Meng Wanzhou, it is not impossible that we will be asked again to arrest a prominent Chinese citizen at the request of a foreign country with which we have an extradition treaty ‒ or that we will have to arrest someone here who is engaging in espionage or interference activities. We have to put mechanisms in place to prevent future hostage taking. One way would be for Canada to develop criteria that would trigger common responses, including sanctions, by countries that have signed the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. All these countries have realized that what happened to the Michaels was pure hostage diplomacy and that it could happen to their citizens, too.

Canada should also ban Huawei from its 5G development to ensure that the company’s equipment cannot be used for espionage and to align with the United States. It must also become a lot more active to prevent Chinese interference in domestic affairs, including cyber espionage. A good starting point would be to look at the four foreign interference laws adopted by Australia.

To prevent China from using trade to punish opponents, Canada should impress on Washington that it needs to make the World Trade Organization functional again by allowing arbiters to be appointed to panels. Countries could then launch actions against China when it imposes punitive sanctions (this would apply to other countries that enact these measures as well). Canada could suggest an alliance to Australia and U.S. (to start), whereby they agree not to increase exports to China beyond their historical share of a given product if one of them is victim of such sanctions. Trade data for the first six months of 2021 show that our exports to China have increased by 23 per cent on a year-to-year basis. This gives us more leeway to take strong measures as China will always need our agri-food products, iron and copper.

There are, of course, areas where it is in our interest to pursue co-operation with China. For example, on the environment, Canada already has a reputable record of providing assistance. This can facilitate business opportunities for Canada to provide China with clean technologies, liquefied natural gas and hydrogen to help reduce its coal emissions. On public health and pandemics, Canada should continue to collaborate with China ‒ especially to ensure it doesn’t cut corners. There’s also people-to-people exchanges: Chinese people like to travel to Canada for tourism and appreciate Canadian education for their children. We also have our own homework to do: Let’s increase Canadian literacy on China by devoting more resources to Mandarin training and centres studying the country’s politics, economics and culture.

But demonstrating strength, first and foremost, is key. To be successful, this new engagement strategy will have to be implemented in close collaboration with like-minded countries. An impending test to do so will be at Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics. Let’s propose that delegations to the opening ceremony be limited, and that foreign leaders not attend. The more we speak with one voice and the more China will be forced to stop its bullying tactics.

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