We are all Australians now.
On Wednesday, the House of Commons passed a motion calling on the government to confront the growing threat to Canada’s “national interest and values” posed by Xi Jinping’s Communist regime in China. It gave Ottawa 30 days to come up with a plan to combat China’s surveillance and intimidation of Chinese Canadians in Canada, and to make a decision on whether to allow Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, to supply equipment to Canada’s 5G wireless networks.
All but five Liberal MPs voted against the motion.
At about the same time, in Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman was denouncing Australia for its many offences against Chinese amour-propre. These were helpfully compiled into a list by the Chinese embassy in Canberra, which somehow found its way into media hands.
The inventory of Australia’s sins includes: banning Huawei’s participation in its 5G network, a decision it took in 2018; passing legislation targeting foreign (read: Chinese) influence operations, including alleged infiltration of business and academic associations and bribery of politicians; calling for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak; “incessant wanton interference in China’s Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan affairs,” i.e. public denunciations of China for its human-rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and for its threats against Taiwan; blocking a number (“more than 10”) of Chinese investments on national-security grounds; criticizing China’s attempts to expand its territory into the South China Sea as “unlawful”; etc., etc. All of which combined to produce that most grievous of crimes in Beijing’s eyes: “poisoning the atmosphere of bilateral relations.”
It should give us no pride to note that almost none of the same charges could be laid against the government of Canada. It has been dithering over the Huawei question for more than two years, with no sign a decision is in the offing. Chinese agents have been permitted to carry out their activities in Canada unmolested by any apparent federal policy: A report by Amnesty International described Ottawa’s approach as “piecemeal and largely ineffective,” while witnesses before the Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations have described police and counterintelligence operations in similarly scathing terms.
Only one significant Chinese takeover of a Canadian business, involving the construction company Aecon Group, has been rejected since the Liberals took office; the Liberals also retracted the Harper government’s decision to nix O-Net Communications’ purchase of Montreal-based ITF Technologies. The government’s statements on Hong Kong, Taiwan and China’s mass internment of its Muslim Uyghur minority have mostly ranged from late to timid to non-existent. (UN Ambassador Bob Rae’s recent description of the treatment of the Uyghurs as “genocide” was a welcome exception.)
Canada, it is true, has come under severe pressure by the Chinese government to toe the line, notably in the matter of the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou pending hearings on her extradition to the United States. Two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, remain prisoners of the regime, nearly two years after their abduction. Restrictions have been placed on Canadian exports of beef and canola.
But Australia has been subject to all this and more. Its citizens, too, including writer Yang Hengjun and television anchor Cheng Lei, have been victims of Chinese “hostage diplomacy.” A long list of its exports – from coal to timber, from lobsters to wine, from barley to beef – have either been hit with tariffs or effectively banned from the Chinese market.
Yet the government of Australia has carried on, defiant. Prime Minister Scott Morrison greeted the latest fusillade from Beijing with a jaunty vow that Australia would “always be ourselves,” setting its own laws “according to our national interests – not at the behest of any other nation.”
Indeed, Australia has been (and I quote from the Chinese government’s bill of indictment) “spearheading the crusade against China” in the United Nations and other international forums. This, despite the fact that Australia has just two-thirds Canada’s population, and is far more dependent on Chinese trade: China accounts for a third of Australia’s exports, versus less than 4 per cent of Canada’s. Indeed, it has been party to a free-trade agreement with China since 2015.
Mere timidity is, if anything, the optimistic explanation for the Trudeau government’s posture toward China. Senior officials at Global Affairs are reportedly still advising the government that the country can be brought to see reason, while Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, continues to say things like “we need to do more in China.” Geopolitical theories of China as the rising global hegemon die hard, as does Liberal – and Trudeauvian – naivete about Communist dictatorships, especially as these coincide with the business interests of retired Liberal grandees.
But Australia’s counterexample, as courageous as it is principled, ought to shame us into our senses. Beijing has clearly signalled that worse is to come for the Lucky Country, which unlike Canada cannot count on the Americans to ride automatically to its defence; not for nothing did Australia and Japan just conclude a landmark defence co-operation agreement. But whatever price Australia is made to pay is also likely in store for us. As the former diplomat and foreign-policy analyst Charles Burton has put it: “Australia’s relations with China today are almost certainly Canada’s tomorrow.”
What, then, will Canada do? Will we stand shoulder to shoulder with Australia? Or will we abandon it, as we did Hong Kong, in the hopes of escaping Beijing’s wrath? Will we form a united front with Australia and other democracies – which may yet include the U.S., assuming its Xi-fancying outgoing President can be ejected from the White House – in opposition to what Canadian intelligence has identified as China’s “strategic threat”? Or will we continue to reward its strategy of playing the countries of the West off one another, each hoping the other will be exposed as the weakest link?
Solidarity with our Australian cousins is the bare minimum that should be expected. If we were serious, we might even try emulating them.
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