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Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole should grasp the opportunity to show unity in responding to the challenges of China, writes John Ibbitson.Fred Dufour/The Associated Press

Conservatives and Liberals have an opportunity to show unity in responding to the challenges of China and of Canada’s role in the new Indo-Pacific world. Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole should grasp that opportunity.

As my colleague Steven Chase reports, Canada and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have begun free-trade talks. Joining ASEAN would give Canada access to the all-important East Asia Summit, which includes ASEAN members plus the big regional players, among them China, India, Japan, Russia and the United States.

An ASEAN agreement would also help repair the damage Mr. Trudeau inflicted in 2017, when he managed to torpedo planned trade talks with China and almost scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which in turn short-circuited Canadian hopes of joining the summit.

Two years later, China abducted Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou after an American extradition request.

That crisis undermined any efforts to rethink Canada’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, which has become the most important, both economically and strategically, region in the world.

“We’ve been sitting on our hands for three years because of the two Michaels,” says Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow specializing in Indo-Pacific issues at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think tank. “Our policy was frozen.”

Canada faces immediate, long-term decisions on China ties after two Michaels’ return

Ottawa may have emerged a loser after Meng Wanzhou’s release, but it can still challenge and co-exist with Beijing

In the wake of the hostage exchange – which is what it became – that sent everyone home, Canada needs to rethink its approach to China and to the other Indo-Pacific countries.

Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, is co-author of a new book on the recent events: The Two Michaels, with Mike Blanchfield of The Canadian Press. He believes that the Americans are developing a coherent response to the challenge of China, one that risks leaving Canada watching as a bystander.

“I don’t think we should underestimate, notwithstanding all the political divisions in the United States, the ability of the world’s most advanced and diversified economy to pick up its socks and up its game against China,” he told me.

The U.S. is hardening its infrastructure against Chinese cyber threats, excluding Chinese participation in its 5G and future 6G wireless networks, reducing supply-chain vulnerability and strengthening its strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Where do we fit into that game plan? For the U.S., right now, we don’t,” Prof. Hampson said. “We have to decide what our interests are, and whether we are going to be a spectator or strategic player.”

Ottawa draws up Indo-Pacific strategy with focus on China aggression

Deepening trade relations throughout the Indo-Pacific is part of a coherent Canadian response, making the ASEAN talks welcome news. But the Canadian response must mean more than trade.

It means standing strong with Taiwan, a fellow democracy, which is under threat of invasion from China.

It means making a big push to turn the QUAD – the strategic partnership among the United States, India, Japan and Australia – into QUINT, with Canada the fifth member. It means turning AUKUS – the security partnership of the U.S., Britain and Australia – into CAUKUS.

And it means spending more on defence. Australia has social programs as advanced as ours and a debt-to-GDP ratio that’s much lower, but spends far more on defence at 2.1 per cent of GDP, compared with our 1.4 per cent.

The best way to convince other players that Canada is more than an appendage of the United States, sheltering under its defence umbrella with no voice of its own, is to contribute more robustly to regional security. And that means spending money on the military.

It also means hardening our own defences against cyber assaults, and protecting Chinese Canadians from Chinese intimidation.

And despite all of that, it means finding ways to live with and trade with China, the world’s second largest economy and third largest military power.

Just as governments of all stripes combined in the 1990s to eliminate deficits, so too federal Liberals and Conservatives should combine to declare bipartisan support for these and other measures.

The United States and other allies are wondering why Canada has no coherent response to the challenge of China. It’s time to show them we do, and that we mean it.

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