The controversy over phone calls made to two former Canadian diplomats asking them to “check in” with Global Affairs before commenting on China policy reached its inevitable conclusion Tuesday, when the Liberals used their majority to vote down the Opposition’s call for Parliamentary hearings into the affair.
The Conservatives and other critics saw the calls as attempts to silence David Mulroney and Guy Saint-Jacques, both of whom served as Canada’s ambassador to China and are regularly called upon by the news media to comment on this country’s frozen relations with Beijing.
It was a clumsy move on the part of the Trudeau government, one that preserved its losing streak when it comes to exerting pressure on the wrong people.
But Global Affairs has since apologized and said its intention was never to muzzle the diplomats. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has also apologized, at least to Mr. Saint-Jacques. In the absence of parliamentary theatrics, let’s move on to the main event.
What remains, and is the critical issue here, is the fact that Ottawa doesn’t have a visible policy for dealing with China in the wake of the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last December. The Chinese businesswoman is currently out on bail and living in a mansion in Vancouver while fighting an extradition request from the United States.
Beijing responded to Ms. Meng’s arrest by jailing two Canadian citizens on bogus national-security charges, moves that amount to political hostage-takings. China also retaliated by suspending all canola imports from Canada, as well as beef and pork imports.
To date, the Trudeau government’s response has been to protest the arrests and seek moral support from allies, including the less-than-reliable Trump administration in the United States. But Ottawa hasn’t taken any retaliatory measures, which has left a void for commentators to suggest actions that would show a little spine.
Mr. Mulroney, for instance, advised against non-urgent travel to China and suggested Canadian tourists avoid “a repressive detention state" – a phrase accurately describing today’s China, but which was raised in his unwelcome phone call from Global Affairs.
Another former diplomat, writing in The Globe and Mail this week, said Ottawa should consider withholding visas for students related to members of China’s ruling Communist Party, among other get-tough measures.
And then there’s the fact Canada imports at least twice as much, in dollar terms, from China as it exports to it. China, in fact, buys only about 5 per cent of Canada’s exports, the vast majority of which – 76 per cent – go to the United States.
In other words, Canada has the leverage to ban targeted Chinese imports that might sting the leadership in Beijing the same way Beijing’s carefully targeted bans on Canadian canola and meat are making the Trudeau government wince.
That’s precisely what Ottawa did after U.S. President Donald Trump put tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum in 2018; it retaliated with tariffs on products, such as bourbon and prepared foods, made in key Republican states.
It’s odd that Ottawa was more willing to play hardball with its biggest trading partner and most important ally, while it treats China with unexplained deference and caution.
This could well be because, in spite of all of Mr. Trump’s many flaws, his country is not an amoral and authoritarian prison state that is entirely detached from the rule of law. The United States largely follows the rules, and it has independent courts where complaints can be heard.
China, on the other hand, has no limits on government power, no law and no compunction about hurting smaller countries that displease it. As an opponent, it outmatches Canada in every category. It is a grizzly bear to our field mouse.
It may be that Ottawa has chosen not to poke the bear while it negotiates in the background. In doing so, the Trudeau government has correctly stuck to its guns about arresting Ms. Meng, and has not given in to calls to summarily overturn the rule of law and let her leave Canada.
But in the absence of any outward signs of progress, that policy is under fire from those experienced in Chinese relations, who think more can be done, and from Canadians who don’t like seeing their fellow citizens being held hostage.
It would be useful to know whether the Trudeau government is playing its hand well, or simply playing dead.