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China’s continued detention of the two Michaels can be seen as a distraction, or a wakeup call.

For some in this country’s business community, Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in response to a United States extradition request, and China’s seizing Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, is all just a big misunderstanding. In that telling of the story, Canada has been unfortunately diverted off the path of ever-greater trade, rising opportunities for Canadian businesses there, growing Chinese investment here and an ever-closer relationship.

And to restore the relationship, and remove the distractions, all Canada has to do is accede to Beijing’s demands. Releasing Ms. Meng is like hitting the reset button.

But for others, this page included, the chill of the past two years is not a misunderstanding. It is a moment of clarity, provided by the other side’s brutal honesty. With the Beijing government showing its true colours, it’s an opportunity for Canadians, and the Trudeau government, to understand what the People’s Republic of China is, and to recognize that Canada’s relationship with China was never what was pretended, and could never be what was imagined.

The tension between Canada and China, and between Europe and the United States and China, does not have to be the beginning of a new Cold War. But the surest way to avoid one is to recognize that the nature and behaviour of the Beijing regime make it a possibility.

China is not the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was also a non-democratic superpower, but it headed a parallel, separate economic system. Its elite were not sending their kids to Harvard and Oxford and the University of Toronto, or investing in real estate from Vancouver to London. It barely traded with countries outside the Soviet bloc. Global supply chains for computers and cars did not run through Moscow and Leningrad.

Since the late 1970s, China has followed a different path. Instead of aiming for an economic system cut off from what was once called “the first world,” it has tried to enmesh itself as deeply as possible into established systems of trade, research and production.

As a result, China has quickly gone from backwater to superpower. It will soon become the largest economy in the world, surpassing the U.S.

However, there is no sign of the Communist Party of China loosening its grip; on the contrary, its actions at home and in Hong Kong show it less tolerant than ever of dissent. Democracy, which it once hinted was a goal to work toward, is now condemned as foreign heresy. Ditto the rule of law. Overseas, China has upped its ambitions, its bellicosity and its willingness to throw around its weight, as in the hostage-taking of the two Michaels.

The power and influence of China is a global fact, and a growing one. It cannot be wished away, nor can the regime be wished into change.

The challenge for Canada is coming up with an approach toward Beijing that is based on respect for its power, but also respect for our own values and national interests. In the long run, the best protection of Canada’s interests will be power. Given that Canada’s size and weight are dwarfed by China, that means a need for allies.

That’s why, when the Trudeau government in its early days proposed to pursue a free-trade agreement with China, we were opposed. Backers who hoped to “get into” the Chinese market before other Western countries were playing into China’s hands. We should be partnering with our allies, not trying to undercut them.

In any case, China’s desire for such an agreement was most likely not about trade, but about preventing Canada from restricting investment by its state-owned companies. Trade between Canada and China is already largely free, at least for imports into this country, thanks to the World Trade Organization. The WTO isn’t a perfect agreement, but it is at least a multilateral forum. It’s a table with more than two chairs, the traditional preferred venue of Canadian foreign policy.

More than 70 years ago, faced with a different sort of threat, Canada helped to create NATO. China is not the Soviet Union and the threat this time is largely not military. But there is a need today for many players to come together, as there was three generations ago, to make themselves big enough earn the respect of a superpower.

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