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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-U.S. vice-president Joe Biden arrive at a state dinner on Dec. 8, 2016, in Ottawa.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Joe Biden is coming into the White House with a plan to work with allies, in particular on a new strategy to counter China. Canada should grab it with both hands. And be ready to take a beating.

Beijing has imprisoned two Canadians as retaliatory measures, played capricious games with agricultural exports and delivered dark warnings when Ottawa musters mild criticisms.

So Mr. Biden’s idea for dealing with China by working with allies is a potential game-changer for Canada and others from Europe to Australia to South Korea to South Asia. But it won’t come easily.

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President Donald Trump made confronting China a big part of his rhetoric, but he did it primarily on trade balances, and threatened allies with the same tariffs – offending friends, scaring partners and killing any notion of a U.S.-led common front.

But now Mr. Biden is promising to revive U.S. alliances and to work with them to counter China. That was a key point in an essay he published in Foreign Affairs magazine last spring, in which he argued that China might be willing to take on the U.S., which represents a quarter of the world’s economy, but not a united front of democracies that would represent half.

As president-elect, rebuilding alliances seems to be his planned first step. In his first postelection call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he was effusive about working with allies. His pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, shares that priority. The rumoured favourite to be secretary of defence, Michèle Flournoy, has spoken extensively about the need to confront China assertively but in a joint effort with allies around the world.

Countries like Canada need that common front. We’ve seen thinly veiled retaliation of the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in the detentions of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and in measures that blocked Chinese imports of Canadian products such as canola.

But we’ve also seen the future in Australia, which has not only been subjected to damaging Chinese trade measures, but also to an unvarnished threat that Australia better govern itself as China wants, or else. The Chinese embassy there distributed a list of 14 demands to newspapers, including insisting that Australia reverse its decision to bar Huawei equipment from next-generation networks and repeal its foreign-interference laws.

That should be a sign to Canada and others that a common front is needed. In fact, we should be pushing Mr. Biden’s administration to make it more than just a return to multilateral consultations, but rather something more formal, where countries agree to apply sanctions against China if it crosses lines.

“A lot of this depends on the attitude of the allies,” said Charles Burton, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former Canadian diplomat in China.

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Will countries such as Canada or Germany or South Korea agree that if China crosses certain lines – arbitrary trade measures, or arbitrary arrests, for example – they will impose sanctions on Beijing? Some will certainly fear Beijing will retaliate. “I guess China will exploit the weak points if it can,” Mr. Burton said.

Building an alliance against China would require having a trade pact outside the World Trade Organization, and agreeing to respond jointly to non-trade actions taken by China, such as the arbitrary arrest of foreigners. And that could threaten to split the world into two hardened trade blocs.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said he believes Beijing would change its behaviour quickly if a robust formal alliance was built.

The Chinese were surprised and worried when Canada started seeking international support for its protest of the arrests of the two Canadians, he said, noting that China is demanding that Australia stop working with other nations on a “crusade” against China.

But it wouldn’t be simple to put such an alliance together, Mr. Saint-Jacques said. Countries such as Canada could expect that the Chinese would try to punish them simply for voicing support for the idea, let alone working to make it a reality. Yet if they don’t, Mr. Saint-Jacques said, they will continue to be punished separately.

Maybe Mr. Biden, who is taking power in a pandemic and a recession, won’t be keen to take his China alliance so far. But his allies, like Canada, have every reason to push.

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