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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds his first news conference as leader on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 25, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

For five years, Canada’s opposition has been trying and failing to land a solid blow on Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy, jabbing and hooking wildly at what should have been an easy target. The Prime Minister is not much of a foreign-affairs guy; he has been slow-moving and inarticulate on many global files.

The Conservatives managed a few glancing blows on Mr. Trudeau’s embarrassing foreign trips, but somehow, there has been no haymaker. The Tories couldn’t decide what they were aiming for. Were the Liberals “reckless” and overly unilateral in their punishment of Saudi Arabia and Russia for authoritarian abuses? Or were they “weak” and reliant on coalitions and treaties in their approach to Iran or Venezuela?

That’s all changed now that Erin O’Toole is Tory leader. A former foreign-affairs critic and military guy, Mr. O’Toole is the first opposition leader in a long time to have a genuine interest in foreign policy. And he’s narrowed that interest down to a single plank: “Tough on China.”

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That’s a politically shrewd decision, since a wide swathe of Canadians would appreciate a less tolerant approach to President Xi Jinping’s regime. The imprisonment and abuse of a million people in Xinjiang because of their ethnicity, the crushing of supporters of democracy in Hong Kong, and the de facto hostage crisis that has imprisoned two Canadians for almost two years – these have shifted public sympathies.

There’s a sense, often well-justified, that Mr. Trudeau has been slow to reflect those views and impose countermeasures against China while providing more overt support for dissidents. That gives the Tories an opening, for the first time in a while. The last time they were in power, they were accused by China experts of being obsequious toward China’s communist regime. Mr. O’Toole clearly wanted a break from that image.

Last year, before he became a leadership candidate, I spent a couple hours talking to Mr. O’Toole about his foreign-policy views. He was well-informed and generally moderate, but I got the sense that he was struggling to differentiate himself with distinctly conservative stances. He was a big admirer of the foreign-policy approach of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who, unlike other Tory leaders, was a real liberal internationalist.

But Mr. Mulroney was also a Cold Warrior, leading Canada on a more hostile stance against the Soviet Union (in contrast to the Trudeau before him), and I got the sense that Mr. O’Toole was searching for his own Cold War to fight. In Mr. Xi’s authoritarian turn, he believes he’s found one.

In fact, Mr. O’Toole’s inaugural policy statement last week boiled his entire platform down to two things: A “Canada First” form of economic nationalism, and “Tough on China.”

That was probably enough to capture the attention of some voters. But if he wants his message to translate into something substantive that will last beyond the prorogation of parliament and maybe influence Canada’s behaviour, he will need to decide what “Tough on China” really means.

Because really, there are three kinds of toughness.

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First is performative toughness – gestures that look aggressive to please domestic audiences, but don’t affect much. Australia’s government has mostly taken this route, threatening to cancel all contracts between any Australian organization and China, unilaterally banning Huawei from cellphone networks, and so on. In many respects, U.S. President Donald Trump’s haphazard and purely trade-focused approach is merely performative, too.

On the other end of the spectrum is nuclear-option toughness – acts that would sever ties with China’s economy and government. That would be principled – and could be done exactly once. And it could be ineffective, if not done in concert with other countries.

In between are substantive acts of toughness. “I think the Liberal government could be doing more,” says Lynette Ong, a specialist in China and authoritarian governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs. “The government could be stronger in its rhetoric against China, but more substantively, Mr. Trudeau could be doing more, especially around Hong Kong.”

She suggests doing so around immigration policy, including the issuing of special Canadian visas to welcome and settle Hong Kong democrats and their families. Bigger things, such as imposing sanctions or banning Chinese companies from technology contracts, won’t accomplish anything unless we get other countries to join us.

That might change after this week’s summit between China and the European Union, whose members are finally turning against Beijing. It might change even more after the U.S. election.

If you read Mr. O’Toole’s proposals beyond the sabre-rattling, he too stresses that Canada should only act substantively against China after we “build an international coalition.” That probably doesn’t differentiate him from the Liberals in substance. But it certainly gives him the rhetorical upper hand – at least for the moment.

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