The Australian election campaign that ends on Saturday has foreshadowed what Canada’s might end up looking like as our relations with China go downhill at exactly the wrong time.
Even more than Canada, Australia is caught between the world’s two superpowers. A long-time U.S. ally, and a member of the Five Eyes intelligence network, Australia now depends more on trade with China than any other country. Managing both bilateral relationships has become an all-consuming task; pleasing one superpower usually means angering the other.
“You don’t have to pick sides,” Liberal Leader and incumbent Scott Morrison insisted this week on the campaign trail. “You stand by your friends and you stand by your customers as well.”
Referring to the United States as a “friend” and China as merely a “customer” was a gaffe. Mr. Morrison’s comment was ridiculed by Labor Leader Bill Shorten, who declared: “I see a much more sophisticated relationship than viewing China as some sort of customer going through the Australian Mc-drive-through and saying, ‘What can we get from you?’ ”
Mr. Shorten, whose centre-left party is narrowly favoured to win under Australia’s preferential voting system, has vowed to take a friendlier tack with China than the centre-right Liberal/National coalition in power. Even so, he has not promised to reverse the current government’s ban on Chinese giant Huawei’s participation in Australian 5G next-generation telecommunications networks.
Indeed, after former Labor prime minister Paul Keating last week took a swipe at Australia’s national-security agencies, saying they had “all gone berko” (or berserk) by recommending a ban on Huawei equipment, Mr. Shorten was quick to do damage control. “We will continue to take the professional advice of the people who help keep Australians safe,” he said.
That likely tells you all you need to know about the decision facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government as it weighs whether to allow Huawei to participate in the rollout of 5G networks here in Canada. Bell and Telus have warned that banning Huawei would add $1-billion to the cost of building their 5G networks, a sum they would no doubt seek to recoup by raising prices on wireless services that are already among the world’s highest.
Huawei has lined up a slew of well-connected former Liberal and Conservative operatives to lobby Ottawa on its behalf. But these domestic lobbyists and public-relations execs have no more insight into the company’s ties to the Chinese government – or the risk that “back doors” in Huawei equipment could be used to spy on Canadians – than the average person on the street. They should, hence, be ignored. Huawei is free to waste its money if it wants.
U.S. President Donald Trump this week issued an executive order authorizing his Commerce Secretary to ban the import of telecommunications gear from companies with close ties to foreign adversaries. Such a ban, while targeted at Huawei and ZTE Corp., would likely have little practical effect, since both companies have been all but absent from the U.S. market since the House of Representatives intelligence committee labelled them a national-security threat in 2012.
What really forces Ottawa’s hand, however, is the threat that the United States intends to limit intelligence-sharing with countries that allow Huawei equipment to be used in their telecom networks. That is simply a risk that Canada – which, like Australia, is a member of the U.S.-led Five Eyes network – cannot afford to take. Everyone in Ottawa likely already knows this.
If the Trudeau government has delayed announcing a Huawei ban, it is because it does not want its relations with China to deteriorate any further. China has now formally arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who had been detained in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Still, the Trudeau government cannot allow the lines to be blurred between these two files. Banning Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks is an entirely separate issue from Ms. Meng’s extradition. And if Canada is to avoid making a further mess of its relationship with China, it must walk the talk about respecting the rule of law and make it clear to China that there are certain lines, not to mention allies, we will not cross. Our relationship with the United States is simply too critical to our national and economic security to jeopardize out of a desire to curry favour with Beijing.
There is no finessing that reality. The sooner Ottawa spells it out for China and the Canadian public alike, the better it will be for everyone. If Australia can do it, so can we.