Russia's move to join China for naval exercises next month in the disputed South China Sea is a defiant shot across the bow for Washington and Ottawa.
Beijing and Moscow, bonded by contempt for Western geopolitics, announced their military collaboration three weeks after an international tribunal rejected China's claim to sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea. In that context, the exercise is a tailor-made precursor for Vladimir Putin's designs on Arctic waters long acknowledged as Canadian.
The tribunal in The Hague, constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, also condemned as illegal China's aggressive building of military bases and airfields on isolated reefs and islands many hundreds of miles from its coast. Under the Law of the Sea, to which China has been a party since 1982, there's basically nothing to negotiate. The area under dispute is simply international waters, to which no country has a legitimate claim.
The UN-backed tribunal reflects international consensus. Canada issued a statement saying the decision is binding on China, and a joint statement by Japan, the United States and Australia goes further, warning against "force or coercion" by China in defending its illegal claims over the South China Sea.
Don't expect China to back down or comply with the ruling. Beijing responded to the tribunal with scorn. One senior official called the decision a "piece of trash paper," while the New China News Agency dismissed The Hague's decision as wanton manipulation by "Uncle Sam and its friends" seeking to deny China its sovereign entitlements by "applying double standards."
There is a very real prospect of serious military confrontation if China asserts its sovereignty claims by blocking international access to these waters, but a larger question is how to deal with China's increasingly petty mean-spiritedness in dealing with Western countries. Consider the disappearance into the Chinese gulag of Canadian missionary Kevin Garratt after Ottawa condemned Chinese hacking of Canadian government servers, followed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's outburst over a Canadian reporter's "totally unacceptable" question about Mr. Garratt.
China's destabilization of the South China Sea indicates a deeper issue that goes to the fundamentals of the Communist Party People's Republic régime. At its founding in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong declared: "Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up!" The flow of this logic is "China's civilization is ancient and great. China was weakened and is victimized by amoral Western forces. China will rise again and set things to rights."
After assuming office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed that Washington and Beijing establish a "new kind of major power relationship." He said the U.S. should acknowledge China as an equal power, and withdraw from East Asia so China could reassert its traditional role as the region's sole dominant power. The proposal has strong resonance in China domestically, as it would show Beijing fulfilling Mao's mandate. That Mr. Xi's proposal has been gently but utterly rebuffed by the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region wounds China's national pride.
Beijing devotes considerable resources to soft-power initiatives projecting China as a responsible, law-abiding nation. The reality is an angry regime resentful and deeply suspicious of foreign countries and multinational institutions, seeking petty advantage at every turn and thus sabotaging the building of trust in its larger international relations.
Canada has serious cause for concern about our future relations with the major powers to our north (Russia) and our south (the U.S.) while, to the east, Europe is trying to keep its feet in the midst of Brexit. So with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's coming visit to China, we look west to a China-dominated Asia-Pacific region to build our prosperity and refocus Canada's foreign policy orientation.
But engaging with China requires more than bridging cultural or political differences. The critical issue is how to ensure that Canada's relations with China are reciprocal and mutually beneficial. That is what Canada wants. But does China?