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As Canada’s confrontation with China moves from crisis to crisis, there’s a consistent, unspoken message from Ottawa: Not now. Hold off. Just a little longer.

You can hear it in the words of Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who in a year-end interview spoke with uncharacteristic indignation about Beijing’s two-year imprisonment of two Canadians in what is essentially a hostage-taking in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request.

But he generally stuck to the language of polite diplomacy, as is his wont, avoided talk of specific threats and repercussions, and said he would not be releasing a new, tougher policy framework for dealings with China: It would soon become irrelevant, he said, in “a fast-evolving set of circumstances.”

You can hear it in the hesitant approach of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. Last week they wisely banned a Chinese state-owned company from buying a Canadian Arctic gold-mining firm.

But as for whether to ban Huawei technology in Canadian 5G data networks or whether to impose more sanctions on officials connected with the crushing of Hong Kong democracy or the repression of Muslim minorities, those decisions will wait.

You can hear it leaking out from internal government communications. The Globe and Mail revealed this month that a 2019 decision by the Canadian military to end training exercises with the People’s Liberation Army (launched under the Conservatives in 2013, when China was moving in a more positive direction) faced resistance from Canada’s foreign ministry, known as Global Affairs: “Any decision by Canada to reduce/cut ties should be carefully considered to avoid sending any unhelpful or unintended messages,” one memo from the department’s then deputy minister said. In other words: Now is not the time. Just wait.

And you can hear it from Mr. Trudeau himself. As the two Canadians prepared to spend their third Christmas behind bars, the Prime Minister told a Dec. 18 press conference: “I remain hopeful to get good news, an hour from now, a day from now, a week from now, a month from now.”

“A month from now” was a well-calibrated estimate. What the Liberals are waiting for is no secret: It has long been a consensus within the government that any decisive action on China will have to wait until after the Jan. 20 inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

There is some sense in that decision, even if it has left the Liberals exposed to well-delivered attacks from the Conservatives, who’d prefer Canada to follow the lead of Australia, which responded to China’s injustices by imposing, alone, a full suite of sanctions, technology bans and trade retaliations.

That approach, though satisfying as pure moral idealism, has been a failure in terms of Australia’s national interest: It had no chance of either changing China’s behaviour or putting trade or institutional relations on a more level playing field.

That will only happen if such actions are taken, in concert, by a wide swathe of countries, including the United States – a large enough group to have a noticeable impact on China, but done in an engaged way that will provide a set of tangible benefits for China’s leadership and citizens when things improve.

President Donald Trump’s unilateral approach to China, by contrast, was modelled loosely on the “containment” policies directed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It combined military escalation with trade protectionism that gave China no reason to change.

We can hope that Mr. Biden learned, as a senator during the Cold War, the folly of containment: Lacking any positive forms of engagement, it probably prolonged the Cold War by several years.

Mr. Biden is sending signals that a multilateral, engaged approach is what he wants. In a speech this week to the National Security Agency’s spooks, he declared: “As we compete with China and hold China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights and other fronts, our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies to make common cause with us in defence of our shared interests and values.”

His specific mix of carrots and sticks, though, might not be ideal for Canada and its allies. This week saw the European Union rushing to pass a trade and investment deal with China in an apparent effort to get ahead of any U.S.-led agreements to get tougher on Beijing.

Mr. Biden will not be able to free the imprisoned Canadians, and his protectionist bent might not be ideal for us. But as we watch Ottawa stall for time, we’re learning a humiliating lesson: Until we have the Americans on board, on China and so many other files, we’re not going to get far.

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