Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Given the deep and tense chill in the Canada-China relationship, it seems a bit incongruous for a cabinet minister visiting Beijing to tweet about ice cream. Yet that’s just what Small Business and Export Promotion Minister Mary Ng did at a World Economic Forum meeting in early July. There was no public comment about China’s trade embargoes, which have kneecapped our canola, beef and pork industries; nothing about democratic rights in Hong Kong; nothing about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians who have now spent seven months in jail in China, ostensibly in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Now come revelations that a senior Global Affairs Canada official, reportedly at the instigation of the Prime Minister’s Office, asked our former ambassadors to clear their public commentary with the department. When opposition parties called for parliamentary hearings into the allegations, the Trudeau government used its majority to vote them down.
The federal government looks committed to hearing no evil, seeing no evil and doing nothing on the China file, for fear of further upsetting Beijing. That is no policy for Canada.
Without parliamentary hearings, questions remain. The PMO has denied the allegations, but if the request did emerge from the PMO, was it initiated by the Privy Council Clerk, as head of the public service, the national security adviser or the deputy ministers at Global Affairs?
With a federal election just months away, this only feeds the Conservative impression that the public service leans Liberal. Worse, it’s a sign that Justin Trudeau’s government seems to be learning all the wrong things from the Chinese. The guardrails between our politicians, public service and judiciary are fundamental to democracy, and this is a norm that needs to be respected by all parties. One would have thought the government had learned from recent controversies, too: Ignoring norms has already cost the government a clerk of the privy council, a national security adviser and an unfairly keelhauled vice-chief of the defence staff.
We need a realistic, not a romantic, China policy. It should start with the recognition that China is an authoritarian state, a strategic competitor and systemic rival. It will never follow Western democratic norms because that would destabilize the Communist Party – the root and base of the People’s Republic of China.
We have to contain what even Mr. Trudeau acknowledges is China’s “aggressive” and “assertive” behaviour. We need to deter Chinese efforts, as reported by our intelligence agencies, to destabilize our democratic elections. We need to engage, not just for trade and investment, but to ensure peaceful co-existence and detente. Otherwise, China will continue to turn the screws: seafood may be next.
For self-respect – we are, after all, a Group of Seven and Group of 20 country – we need to push back.
First, we should launch an appeal to the World Trade Organization over China’s illegal actions against our canola, beef and pork. We need to encourage like-minded countries to join us, starting with the United States, which got us into this mess by asking us to arrest Ms. Meng.
We should also support Taiwan in its application to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Keeping the vibrant democracy out of international institutions just because China wants it that way no longer makes sense.
Let’s also put the spotlight on China’s abysmal human-rights record, starting with Hong Kong. Canada has one of the world’s largest diasporas of Hong Kongers, many of whom sought Canadian citizenship after the Tiananmen Square massacre. We invested in Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and we need to do so again. We helped organize the Lima Group, to tackle the crisis in Venezuela. We’ve hosted a conference focused on democratic reform in Ukraine. Why can’t we do something similar about China’s incursions?
And then there are the million-plus incarcerated Uyghurs in China. While we practise reconciliation with Indigenous people, Beijing enforces re-education. We are committed to multilateralism, so why not take advantage of multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Commission?
We need to hit those calling the shots in the Communist Party. We should lift the visas of Chinese students in Canada who are related to party officials. A Canadian education is a valued commodity in China.
A strategic approach to China means thinking about the long game. Where do we want to wind up? What are our assets and vulnerabilities, our overriding objectives and goals? Where do the pieces fit together? Engagement, containment and deterrence should be the guiding principles. Trying to muzzle our China ambassadors – foreign policy experts – is not the way to achieve a better way forward.
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