David Curtis Wright is associate professor of history and senior fellow in the Centre for Military, Security & Strategic Studies, at the University of Calgary. He is co-founder of the Journal of Chinese Military History.
In late May, Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye said that Canada-China relations are the worst they have ever been. He was correct: the relationship is at its lowest point since it was established in October 1970.
“Whoever tied the bell around the tiger’s neck must untie it,” as the Chinese idiom goes. But this might not be the most fitting Chinese idiom to reflect our current straits. “One hand can’t make a clapping sound” might be more like it.
China fanned the flames of this conflagration by detaining two Canadians and politicizing trade through Canadian canola and other agricultural commodities – something Beijing chides other countries for doing. And it would likely never have done this if not for l’affaire Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive arrested in Canada on behalf of the United States.
From 1978 until 2012 or so, China kept its international profile low. But if a prickly Beijing now politicizes and disrupts trade whenever it throws political hissy fits, will China remain a stable and reliable trading partner? My son, a business banker in Airdrie, Alta., says China’s canola ban distresses and angers many of his clients. China has made itself no new friends – and many new detractors – in Alberta, where it maintains a consulate.
The Chinese have another idiom for what’s happening between the U.S., China, and Canada: “Big fish eat little fish, and little fish eat shrimps.”
Yes, the people of China now have bruised and battered feelings about Canada, but these hard feelings are mutual. Recent surveys indicate significant hardening of Canadian public opinion toward China. Norman Bethune must be turning over in his grave in Shijiazhuang.
I grew up in Utah during the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s, decades that were hardly as halcyon as pop culture has depicted them. My parents had a fallout shelter stocked with food in the basement of our house on Hillcrest Drive in Springville. A large community alert siren there occasionally summoned the volunteer fire department (my parents hoped), and my earliest hero, a Pacific War veteran with a Japanese bullet inoperably lodged in his back, would dash out of his house across the street and rush off in his pickup to wherever the fire was. I did not know then that the siren might also herald our demise, fallout shelter or not.
Like the youth behind the Extinction Rebellion movement today, Cold War youth thought the world might end before we had a chance to grow old. We were always jumpy. Whenever we heard an explosion or sonic boom, our first thought was that the Russians were attacking. In the early 1980s, I remember returning to my car after several days of backpacking in the High Uintas Primitive Area and immediately switching on the car radio to learn if Manhattan was still there.
I don’t want a sequel of those years for my children and grandchildren, or even myself in my dotage. I now understand my mother, who worried about her sons being compelled to go to Vietnam and told us we would all go to Canada if draft age loomed for any of us and the war was still happening. Another Pacific War veteran told me: “If you’re dumb enough to approach the Canadian border, I’ll be smart enough to push you across.”
For my family, all was well that ended well with Vietnam and Cold War 1.0. But John Mearsheimer and Graham Allison correctly observe that historically, war usually breaks out between established great powers and emerging ones. Can the world be so lucky a second time around?
Canada suffers, in the meantime. If Canada hadn’t arrested Ms. Meng, the Americans would’ve been infuriated. But it did, and now China is livid. The same is true for the looming dichotomy: Beijing will be incandescent with rage if Ottawa extradites Ms. Meng to the U.S., and Washington will be furious if it doesn’t. Canada is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.
Thanks a lot, Cold War 2.0 superpowers, for this binary bombshell you have dropped on Canada. What knots will you untie for us? We are not your geostrategic chessboard. Learn to co-exist – or at least stop dragging unwilling unfortunates into your tiffs. Don’t turn our ballroom dance into a ballroom brawl – or at least have the decency to duke it out in the privacy of the cloakroom.