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Opinion Canada is caught in the middle of a China-U.S. tech war

Paul Evans is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.

The case of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou – arrested in Vancouver on charges that her company contravened U.S. sanctions on Iran – is attracting global attention, and it has thrust Ottawa into a high-stakes policy challenge between China and the United States.

Her case has direct implications for the impending decision about Huawei’s role in Canada’s 5G system, as well as implications for our broader bilateral relationship with China. Beijing is currently weighing the precise steps it will take against Canada for making the arrest, which came at the request of the U.S.

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But the bigger strategic picture is what is most alarming. Behind the arrest is a U.S.-China conflict that is not just a trade war, but a technology war in which Canada is caught in the middle – and that war’s headlong geopolitical competition is hurtling toward a crisis.

The Trump administration’s brinkmanship in its economic negotiations with China rests upon Washington’s souring mood on China, a sentiment that is bipartisan, multisectoral and crosses ideological lines. Fear of China is growing, as the country is cast not just as a combination of competitor, co-operator and occasional threat as in previous administrations, but as a peer, competitor, adversary and enemy.

In this new phase of competition, American intentions are not just to protect against potential threats in traditional defence and security areas, but to redefine, as a matter of national power and national security, a widening number of technological sectors: artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, bio-pharmacy and more. America wants to constrain and counter China in these sectors, and its weapon is decoupling or de-integrating it from those sectors.

Huawei and its 5G capabilities are just the tip of a very large iceberg in the chilly waters of techno-nationalism.

As Ms. Meng’s case proceeds through the Canadian judicial system, we can expect a full-court press from Washington, Chinese retaliation, and heated rhetoric by those who see this as an opportunity to more closely align Canadian policy with America’s in confronting a China they distrust and want to punish.

However, despite a barrage of negative coverage of China in parts of the Canadian media, and widespread concern about specific Chinese actions, Canadians more broadly remain open to deeper connections with China, rather than decoupling or Cold War confinement. The Trudeau government’s acceptance of clause 32.10 in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement – which gives any of those countries the right to dissolve the USMCA if new free-trade agreements are negotiated with non-market countries – was not a sign of agreement with Washington, but a reluctant concession that doesn’t reflect Ottawa’s ambitions for expanded trade.

If there still is room to manoeuvre on a made-in-Canada decision on Huawei, there are four options:

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  • Open a better-informed public discussion about the specific threats to national security involved in the decision. In the words of security analysts: What are the issues around confidentiality, integrity and availability in our 5G ecosystem with and without Huawei involvement?
  • Consider the multiple dimensions of the national interest that include security risks, but extend beyond them. These are economic and commercial, and include the development of our research and development as well as applied science capabilities. They extend into our positioning in an unravelling world order, and the kinds of rules and institutions we want to defend.
  • Speak with players in like-minded countries, including the Five Eyes (the U.K., the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, and Canada) but also beyond, in countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Germany. They too have reservations about both Chinese capabilities and American intentions.
  • Open discussions with China about new rules, exempt sectors, rules of engagement and monitoring enforcement mechanisms. If there are to be “no-fly zones” on our side as well as for the Chinese – they already have lists of sectors in which foreign investment is encouraged, restricted or prohibited – what are they? If we wish to keep doors open to an increasing flow of finance and investment, movement of people and ideas, what specific windows do we need to close?

At the end of the day, it may well be a wise decision to ban Huawei from our 5G system. But let us not close our eyes to a more nuanced set of options. Meantime, the Meng case is going to test our courage and wits on the precipice of a Sino-American confrontation that is rattling us all.

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