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How can democracies counter China’s growing clout

J. Michael Cole is a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He is currently a Taipei-based Senior Fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.

China is on a mission to provide an alternative to the liberal-democratic order that has underpinned international relations since the end of the Second World War, an order in which Canada is a proud participant.

Amid uncertainty over the future of the North American free-trade agreement and U.S. global leadership, it is only natural that Ottawa would seek to deepen its relationship with China, the world's second-largest economy and an increasingly important player in international affairs. But as recent cases in Australia and New Zealand have made clear, it is time Canada started paying closer attention to the potential costs to our democracy of engaging authoritarian China, a country that is led by the most successful communist party in history.

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The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, which concluded in October, unleashed a Chinese President Xi Jinping at his most intent to exploit the moment of weakness in Western democracy to displace an old international system that, in Beijing's view, has outlived its usefulness.

China is now a fact of life, even in Canada. But little by little, the ramifications of greater engagement with it for our liberal-democratic institutions are starting to be better understood – not just by our intelligence agencies, but by our politicians, our academics and journalists.

Canada must adjust its policies of engagement with China by building upon the knowledge that is accumulating globally. Scandals surrounding China's influence on politicians in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Central Europe and at the United Nations, and the creeping censorship that threatens academic and journalistic freedom, are forcing people to rethink the price we are willing to pay for collaboration with the Middle Kingdom. It would be foolish to think that Canada is exempt.

Canadians need to learn from the experiences of others to determine how to balance between engaging China and protecting ourselves against attempts by a regime whose values often are anathema to ours. Such learning must occur in our media industry, where acquisitions, financial pressure, propaganda and disinformation threaten our fourth estate. Our academic institutions must also become more aware of who they are dealing with in their exchanges, from Chinese academics who have ties to the Chinese United Front or intelligence apparatus, to Chinese "think tanks" whose primary role is to conduct political warfare against us.

Canada needs to modernize the laws that govern foreign influence so as to cover not only illegal acts, but also instances where collaboration is unethical and against the values that define us. We must be strong in our resolve to protect our society and ready to be criticized – sometimes harshly – by Beijing. But such adjustments are necessary. As we push back, we can find strength in the knowledge that China needs us as much as we need it, that its economic and social exchanges with us are not, and never will be, charity. China engages us because it is in its interest to do so.

Canadian officials, businesspeople, academics and journalists would also benefit from closer engagement with their counterparts in parts of the world that already have a history of balancing the costs and benefits of engaging China. Given our attachment to liberal-democratic traditions, we must reach out to fellow democracies that have done so, and in whose survival as democracies Canada has a stake. Taiwan, the nation of 23.5 million people (and home to about 60,000 Canadians), is one of them. Even though Canada does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, exchanges across the spectrum are entirely permissible. Our businesses can learn from it on how to better protect against Chinese attempts to steal our technology through investments and acquisitions; our institutions can learn from Taiwan on how to defend against Chinese cyberattacks; and our intelligence agencies would benefit from engaging their counterparts in Taiwan, who have decades of experience tracking and countering Chinese penetration at all levels of society.

This is not a witch hunt. But as China becomes part of our world, we must come together in our efforts to identify – and when necessary to counter – the instances where closer engagement with an authoritarian party-state risk eroding the values and institutions that make us who we are.

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