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Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, in this file photo from Aug. 31, 2016.

POOL New/Reuters

Even before Wednesday’s British Columbia Supreme Court ruling in the extradition case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, the government of China was warning of the effect an adverse decision for Ms. Meng would have on relations with Canada. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry demanded her immediate release, to avoid “continuous harm to China-Canada relations.” The rhetoric only escalated afterward.

Strangely, the same anxiety over the state of the relationship could be heard expressed in this country. Relations between the two countries “hang in the balance,” fretted one headline the day before. Another warned a decision allowing the extradition process to continue could “rattle” the relationship. “Our dismal relationship with China just got a whole lot worse,” complained a third, after the event.

This seems odd, not to say out of date. There isn’t any relationship to hang, rattle, or worsen. We may have relations, in the formal diplomatic sense of the word. But a relationship – a broader set of undertakings, based on shared values or at least common interests? There is not one now and has not been for some time, even if some in Ottawa seem slow to realize it. What is more, there cannot be.

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We cannot have a relationship, in any meaningful sense of the word, with a country that kidnaps our people to enforce its demands, not least when those demands entail interfering in a judicial process and abrogating our treaty obligations. That is not how relationships work. Those, including Jean Chrétien’s former chief of staff Eddie Goldenberg, pushing for Canada to surrender Ms. Meng to China, ostensibly in return for the release of “the two Michaels” – businessman Michael Spavor and diplomat Michael Kovrig – but really to maintain a profitable “relationship,” are not only craven, but delusional.

Even if the government of Canada were to make such an offer – it remains an option for the Justice Minister to refuse to extradite her, should the courts rule that he may – there’s no assurance China would take them up on it. Why would Beijing settle so cheaply, when we had so openly signalled our desperation? Why not retain them as bargaining chips, for precisely the purpose they have so successfully served to date: keeping our government on its back foot, perpetually wary of offending China by word or deed?

The “relationship,” indeed, seems to consist entirely of China committing one offence after another against international law, human freedom, or common decency, while the government of Canada takes no action and issues only the most perfunctory statements in response. Did China deceive the world about the spread of the novel coronavirus for crucial weeks at the start of the pandemic? Hmmm. There are “real questions” about China’s role, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau muses.

Is China preparing to trample on dissent in Hong Kong, installing the apparatus of its police state in flagrant defiance of the 1997 handover agreement with Britain? Now is the time, Mr. Trudeau advises, for China to engage in “constructive conversations” with the citizens of Hong Kong, to achieve a “de-escalation of tensions.”

Should Canada follow the advice of intelligence experts and at long last join with its allies in blocking Huawei, whose role as an instrument of Chinese espionage is well-documented, from supplying equipment for its 5G wireless network? Gosh. Bear with me, the Prime Minister responds. “We have been taking advice from our security officials … We are working closely with our allies and watching what they do … .” As we have been doing for most of the past two years.

And so it goes. China may threaten Taiwan (it recently dropped the word “peacefully” from its perennial statement of annexationist ambition), suffocate Tibet, colonize much of the Third World via its Belt and Road initiative, herd its ethnic and religious minorities into “re-education camps,” even intimidate protesters and activists in this country, and the response from the government of Canada is muffled coughs, at best. Don’t want to harm the relationship, you see.

The effect of all this pussyfooting has not been to mollify the dictatorship but, in the way of all bullies, embolden it. Does that suggest the alternative, often heard, of “standing up” to China and “showing some backbone,” would do much better? Probably not. The getting of wisdom entails, in part, a measure of resignation. We are probably not going to win the two Michaels’ freedom any time soon, no matter what we do. Neither is there much we can do, on our own, to save Hong Kong, or to deter China’s other outrages.

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But we can at least try. We can at least speak up. In so doing, we can not only preserve our self-respect, but show the Chinese regime we will not be bullied into submission, or implicated by our silence. Maybe we cannot persuade China to give way to us, but we can at least cause them to doubt whether we will give way to them.

And there is much we can do, alone and with our allies. China’s growing belligerence, coupled with its role in the coronavirus disaster, has tilted the balance of sentiment against it internationally: Countries are increasing calculating that they have less to lose by defying China than by submitting to it. There’s opportunity in this for Canada. We can support – not just go along with, but actively support – an international investigation into China’s responsibility for the pandemic. We can help to organize international opposition to the boot-heeling of Hong Kong, supporting the democratic resistance and offering asylum to its leaders.

We can institute Magnitsky sanctions against China’s kleptocratic leaders, as former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler has urged, and take specific instances of its lawlessness to the appropriate international bodies. We can reach out to China’s rivals in the Indo-Pacific, notably India, Japan and South Korea, and back this up with real engagement: diplomatic, commercial, even military. We can withdraw, as the Conservatives have demanded, from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Last, and boldest, we can recognize Taiwan’s independence, de facto or de jure, and support its inclusion in world councils. Nothing would more clearly signal to Xi Jinping’s regime that the world has had enough than an end to international obeisance to the One China dogma.

We are in a moment of great danger – the regime is wounded, weakened, and lashing out – but also of great possibility. Would actions of this kind harm the relationship? What relationship?

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