The door opened, and Meng Wanzhou stepped off her chartered Air China jet and waved to the crowd. She was wearing a red dress, its colour matching the flag painted to her left on the aircraft fuselage – the flag of the People’s Republic of China.
Ms. Meng’s sudden departure from Vancouver, and China’s simultaneous release of the two Michaels, was a prisoner swap. For anyone who remembers the Cold War, much of it was familiar. Yet if you’d unfrozen a cold warrior, he’d have found much of the ground beneath the story not just unfamiliar, but incomprehensible.
To Ms. Meng’s left, as she stood at the top of the aircraft’s stairs, was the national symbol of China. But to her right was a big, stylized silver star, bigger than the gold star on the Chinese flag, with the words “STAR ALLIANCE” – the international business partnership that includes both Air China and Air Canada.
Cold War-era Aeroflot was not code-sharing flights with Western airlines, or awarding frequent flyer miles to one another’s preferred customers. Unlike the Soviets, who operated an autarkic economic system, nearly every one of the Chinese state carrier’s airliners is an Airbus or a Boeing, including the Boeing 777 that returned Ms. Meng to China. It was built in the United States, with parts from all over the world, including China.
For the past three years, Ms. Meng has been living in one of her multimillion-dollar Vancouver homes, occasionally seen travelling to court or about the city in a GMC SUV, dressed in European designer clothes and shoes. She is a senior executive of Huawei, which for a time was a lead sponsor of Hockey Night in Canada.
Back in 1972, Chelyabinsk Tractor Factory No. 7 was not paying Foster Hewitt’s salary. The company’s directors were not speculating in West Coast real estate. The daughters of the Party elite were not wearing Prada.
In the years to come, the challenge for Canada will be navigating all this. This isn’t a new Cold War. But it also isn’t the opposite of the Cold War, which would be a warm peace.
Canada and China, and the West and China, are in competition and conflict. They are also closely linked. Some of that interdependence is of mutual benefit. But some of it has been leveraged to its advantage by China. That’s what taking Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor hostage was all about.
The Cold War was at least easier to understand. Lines were clear, and not much crossed them. There were no supply chains snaking back and forth over borders. There were few tourists. Between two worlds, there was literally an Iron Curtain.
The present looks less like the Cold War and more like the world of more than a century ago, in globalization’s first era. Borders were largely open, and international trade, travel and immigration were booming. Canada’s King and Germany’s Kaiser were first cousins, in a world of great powers becoming ever more closely interconnected by economics and personal relationships.
It was widely assumed that growing interdependence would make violent conflict between the great powers pointless, or even impossible. Of course, that’s not how it went.
Prior to Beijing taking two Canadians hostage, Ottawa and Bay Street both had eyes blinded by dollar signs. It had not been in anyone’s financial interest to understand that China is not Denmark.
But eyes are now wide open, across the globe. One of the primary aims of Canadian foreign policy should be keeping them that way.
It was only a few years ago that the Trudeau government’s goal was closer economic integration with China. It is now clear that Canadian foreign policy must lean in the opposite direction, so that the growth of trade and investment ties with China is not maximized, as Beijing would wish, but rather minimized, for the protection of Canada’s independence.
Canada should be seeking an economic relationship with China that, as much as possible, is regulated through multilateral forums, and it should aim to be no more trade-dependent on China than absolutely necessary. Ties to Japan, South Korea, India and others must be bolstered, with an eye to limiting the relative size of the China connection.
China is not Canada’s Cold War enemy. Neither is it a benign and peaceful friend. Welcome to the post post-Cold War world.
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