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China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian attends a news conference in Beijing, China, on Nov. 16, 2021.CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/Reuters

When Justin Trudeau remarked recently on China’s propensity for “coercive diplomacy,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman warned cantankerously that Canada is at a crossroads: It has to decide if it sees Beijing as a “partner” or a “rival.”

The rebuttal from Zhao Lijian was a kind of hurry-up ultimatum: You’re either with us or against us. Decide. For a diplomat, the language was a little, well, coercive.

But Mr. Zhao’s response can, unintentionally, help Canada understand its China problem a little better. There are two things Canada cannot be: Beijing’s partner, or its rival.

Partnership with the Chinese government is unthinkable now. We’ve just been through a three-year saga where the Chinese responded to an extradition-request arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou by locking up Canadian civilians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. It would be foolish to accept the bully as a partner. Canadians would not accept it.

But rivalry is impossible, too. China is a nascent superpower of 1.4 billion with a fast-growing economy seven times the size of Canada’s. This country can’t take actions alone to rival China, or block its path, or force it to change its behaviour.

That’s the conundrum that Canada faces now, as a country that has felt pushed around by one superpower, and sometimes squeezed between two.

But it turns out this country is not at a crossroads in its relations with China. It went through one in 2018, with the arrest of the two Michaels, and a series of dark trade threats, when Canadian opinion toward China started to shift significantly.

There is a sense Chinese authorities are eager to have Canada set the clock back and pursue chummier relations, but there is no need to rush to repair things. It’s fine to talk. But we’re not at Mr. Zhao’s crossroads.

Mr. Trudeau, in the year-end interview with Global News where he talked about China’s coercive diplomacy, wasn’t talking about partnership. He bemoaned that countries like Canada are at a disadvantage in dealing with powerful China: He was talking about joining forces with allies to figure out a way to prevent China from playing one off the other.

That’s a message the U.S. is sending to allies like Canada, too, but there isn’t exactly a common front of allies yet. Some European countries worry about their own economic links to China. Others are wary of being lined up in a bloc where the U.S. calls the shots as it sees fit. China’s influence is largely economic, and the U.S. under President Joe Biden will find it harder to build a common front while it continues to pursue America-first protectionist economic policies as it did under Donald Trump.

There’s still reason for Canada to encourage some kind of common front that might seek to influence China’s behaviour, eventually. But in the meantime, there’s no need to feel stuck at a crossroads. There are defensive measures to take at home.

Australia has gone through the crossroads with Beijing, too. It signed a free-trade agreement with China that went into effect in 2015, but has nonetheless seen China slap steep tariffs on coal, barley and wine. In 2020, China gave Australia a list of 14 grievances it was supposed to fix if it wanted good relations, including Australia’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, MPs’ criticism of China, and unflattering media reports.

But Australia has done some things, anyway. It barred China’s Huawei from 5G networks out of fears they could pose a security risk, and passed legislation aimed at curbing foreign interference in Australian domestic affairs, out of a fear Beijing was attempting to coerce Chinese-Australians.

Canada can do some of those things. Mr. Trudeau’s government is supposed to announce its policy on Huawei in 5G soon. The Conservative Opposition want Mr. Trudeau’s government to bar the four federal research granting councils from issuing grants for projects involving Chinese partners if they are in any of the five sectors – including bio-tech and artificial intelligence and quantum computing – identified earlier as “facing particularly severe threat activity” by the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, David Vigneault.

That isn’t rivalry. That’s protecting your interests from a foreign government that has made clear that partnership isn’t an option.

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