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David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012

As is often the case at international meetings, the big deliverables for Canada at the recent G20 Summit in Buenos Aires had little to do with the official agenda. If nothing else, the summit provided an opportunity for the signing of the U.S-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which replaces NAFTA in governing North American trade. While this was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s major accomplishment in Argentina, he also raised human-rights concerns with two of the G20’s most controversial leaders.

Mr. Trudeau told reporters that he had spoken to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about such recent outrages as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s role in the bloody war in Yemen and the continuing incarceration of human rights activist Raif Badawi. The Prime Minister also reportedly confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about Russia’s recent detention of Ukrainian sailors.

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But many observers were surprised by an item that doesn’t seem to have been on the Prime Minister’s agenda: pressing China’s President Xi Jinping about China’s role as the source of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is killing thousands of Canadians each year. Indeed, when asked whether he had raised the issue, the Prime Minister simply expressed confidence that the Chinese are co-operating fully.

President Donald Trump, not surprisingly, took a different tack on the fentanyl issue, sending a typically incendiary tweet condemning Chinese inaction. But he also secured from the Chinese a commitment to list fentanyl as a “controlled substance,” making it easier to prosecute producers. Whether China, which censored this news at home, will take resolute action and co-operate with countries other than the U.S. remains to be seen.

The fentanyl epidemic is a new kind of foreign-policy challenge for us. China is refusing to act responsibly, something that is literally killing Canadians. We need tougher talk from the Prime Minister, but we also need sustained and co-ordinated follow-up by a range of departments, agencies and jurisdictions, something that isn’t our strong suit.

We need to get better at this, and quickly.

Securing co-operation from China on an issue as important as stopping the flow of fentanyl should be identified as a national priority by the Prime Minister. This needs to be communicated clearly to the ministers of Global Affairs and Public Safety, as well as to the commissioner of the RCMP and our ambassador in Beijing. Global Affairs needs to understand that it cannot invoke other Canada-China issues as being more pressing or important than securing Chinese cooperation on fentanyl. For its part, the RCMP must be willing to co-operate and share information with other Canadian departments and agencies, including Global Affairs, in delivering a co-ordinated response.

We also need to move beyond a zero-sum approach that simply rejects whatever demands the Chinese are making. While China is reportedly seeking an unprecedented and unwarranted degree of Chinese police presence in Canada as a quid pro quo for cracking down, they almost certainly have a series of fall-back positions. Finding a position that both sides can live with is the essence of good diplomacy.

We also need to be sure that we’re actually playing our part in solving the problem. We should be prepared to prosecute Chinese drug kingpins much more aggressively, as the Americans do. And we must get serious about addressing Vancouver’s shameful reputation as a centre for money laundering, something that enables the drug trade.

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A truly co-ordinated Canadian response would also involve the premiers of British Columbia and Ontario and the mayors of Vancouver and Toronto, all of whom are key players in our relationship with China. They should be putting pressure on the Chinese diplomats in their jurisdictions – officials who are typically treated with excessive deference – informing them that no co-operation is possible until China gets serious about respecting Canadian laws and Canadian lives.

Stopping the flow of fentanyl from China represents a new kind of foreign-policy challenge for Canada, one that points to the far more unfriendly world order we now have to navigate. It requires an unprecedented degree of co-ordination among our police agencies and key players at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Above all, it requires the Prime Minister to speak frankly and to lead decisively.

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