Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
When the new session begins, Parliamentarians will focus on COVID recovery, but they also need to pay attention to our critical relationship with China. MPs should re-establish the special committee on Canada-China relations that was created in the last session. We need continuing parliamentary oversight of this vital, complex and challenging relationship.
Created last December on a Conservative motion with Bloc Québécois, NDP and Green support, the committee held 12 meetings and the testimony of their 48 witnesses was informative.
The Deputy Minister of Global Affairs Canada, Marta Morgan, affirmed that Canada’s “absolute priority” with China is freeing Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, detained since December, 2018, and securing clemency for Robert Schellenberg. A thousand diplomatic meetings later, the U.S. has been the most supportive. But only 13 other friends and allies have voiced public support. Where are the others? Mr. Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, is right when she says that “words are no longer enough.”
Our China policy, said Ms. Morgan, is one of “comprehensive engagement.” But since December, 2018, only International Trade Minister Mary Ng has visited China. Now Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne acknowledges there is no prospect of freer trade.
Our current policy is neither comprehensive nor engaged. Parliament needs to weigh in. A special committee will help keep focus on our China relationship and, hopefully, come up with a strategy enjoying broad party support.
Witnesses in the last session came mostly from the civil service, scholarly and human rights communities. We need to hear from the business community as we rethink trade and investment. What do security experts think about disinformation, “wolf warriors” and Chinese military activity? And what about Hong Kong, home to at least 300,000 Canadians? Have we done an analysis of the new national security law? What can we do to reinforce “one country, two systems”?
Our allies are re-examining their China relationships. Despite its hawkish title - Communist China and the Free World’s Future – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently laid out a policy based on reciprocity and transparency that also called for collective action by democracies.
Like Canada, the Australians are enduring Chinese “coercive diplomacy”: hostages, trade sanctions, subversion and cyberintrusions. Their government and public policy institutions are looking at everything from technology to the subversive activities of Chinese networks. Australia led the Five Eyes intelligence partners in banning Huawei and ZTE from their 5G networks. Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne have called out Chinese disinformation and cyberintrusions.
A 2019 British Foreign Affairs committee report has trenchant recommendations on China’s Belt and Road initiative; freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; and Chinese interference in U.K. affairs. Former British diplomat Charles Parton’s perceptive report for The Policy Institute describes the dilemma facing Western policy-makers: how both to co-operate with and to resist an authoritarian power with great economic and rising technological power. For Mr. Parton it comes down to four words: “Understand, Prepare, Resource, Unite.” The like-minded democracies, he argues, must act in concert. Former Australian diplomat Peter Varghese advocates an “engage and constrain” strategy to create a new equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. Scholar-diplomat Christopher Bishop looks at case studies, including Chinese detention of the Garratts, and suggests negotiations with China will be long and difficult.
We need a China policy based on realism, one that is neither complacent nor paranoid. China is our second-largest trading partner. It is our second-largest source of foreign students. Nearly two million Canadians claim Chinese descent. A systemic examination of the relationship involving independent research will complement the work of Parliamentarians.
With freer trade now ditched and “comprehensive engagement” a joke, Mr. Champagne needs to speak on the China relationship. We need the same blunt language that then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland employed when she addressed Parliamentarians on Canada’s foreign policy priorities in June, 2017.
Parliamentary committees get little attention but they are work horses of good government. In gathering information from ministers, civil servants, experts and stakeholders, committee hearings provide a vital public education role. Even with the inevitable venting and pontificating, their scrutiny results in better legislation and insightful reports.
When Parliament resumes, it should quickly reinstitute the special committee on Canada-China relations. And then as the late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong observed, “let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.”
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