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Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army march during the Victory Day Parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on June 24, 2020.

Host photo agency/Reuters

The department of Global Affairs pushed back against a decision last year by Canada’s top soldier to cut back on interactions with China’s People’s Liberation Army, warning Beijing might consider this a reprisal for the arbitrary arrest of two Canadians.

Government documents, seen by The Globe and Mail and marked secret and for Canadian eyes only, show that officials at the highest levels of Global Affairs were alarmed that General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, had cancelled winter military exercises with the PLA in 2019.

The United States had raised concerns about joint military exercises that could benefit the PLA, according to the documents.

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“Should Canada make any significant reductions in its military engagement with China, China will likely read this as a retaliatory move related to the Meng Wanzhou case,” a February, 2019, memo to Ian Shugart, then deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, outlining the case for a letter he would be sending to Jody Thomas, deputy minister of the Department of National Defence.

A senior government official said Gen. Vance, on the urgings of the U.S., cancelled winter exercises with the PLA and later all military interactions. Gen. Vance did allow Canadian Armed Forces personnel to compete at the 2019 Military World Games held in Wuhan, China, that October. The Globe is not identifying the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about national security issues.

Mr. Shugart is now Clerk of the Privy Council, the country’s top bureaucrat, who reports directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The memo was written just months after Canada-China relations went into a tailspin. Beijing had locked up two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, in apparent retribution for Ottawa’s arrest of Ms. Meng, chief financial officer at flagship Chinese tech firm Huawei Technologies, in December, 2018. Canada had been acting on a U.S. extradition request.

The documents were released through access-to-information law, although the department of Global Affairs later said they had not been adequately censored before release owing to human error. Alexandre Drago, Global Affairs’ access-to-information director, asked The Globe not to report from the unexpurgated documents, saying they contain “confidential and secret classified information that should not have been released outside of government” and information that is “injurious to Canada’s national security, national defence and international relations,” as well as to individuals. The Globe is selectively reporting on the documents.

The senior government official said Gen. Vance allowed Canadian Armed Forces personnel to compete at the 2019 Military World Games when there were no objections from Canada’s allies in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing group: Australia, Britain, the U.S. and New Zealand.

According to the memo to Mr. Shugart, the U.S. Pentagon had already pressed the Canadian Armed Forces to rethink interactions with the PLA. By the time it was written, the Canadian military had elected to cancel Chinese participation in winter survival training at CFB Petawawa. It was to have included six to eight People’s Liberation Army members.

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The memo described it as a decision taken “unilaterally” by the Canadian military, apparently meaning the Forces did not consult Global Affairs first.

“We understand that [this cancellation] was driven principally by concerns voiced by the U.S. that the training could result in unintended and undesired knowledge transfer to the PLA,” the memo said.

“Unilateral decisions to postpone and/or cancel previously agreed DND/CAF co-operation with the PLA risk being interpreted by China or others in an unintended (and unhelpful) way. [This] could also damage Canada’s long-term defence and security relationship with China,” the memo to Mr. Shugart said.

The department told Mr. Shugart it was likely the Chinese would react negatively to scaling back engagement between the PLA and the Canadian forces because scrapping interactions between military is one tool Beijing uses to express displeasure.

“China has used reductions in military engagements with the U.S. in recent years to signal its dissatisfaction with the U.S.-China trade relationship,” the memo said. “Such reductions have included reported cancelled visits by senior military personnel and cancelled port visits.”

A draft copy of the letter Mr. Shugart was to send to Ms. Thomas includes this caveat about the fate of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.

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“While resolving the consular cases is the government of Canada’s top priority, ensuring a certain amount of continuity in other parts of the Canada-China relationship remains important,” the draft letter said.

“Given the heightened scrutiny, any decision by Canada to reduce/cut ties should be carefully considered to avoid sending any unhelpful or unintended messages,” it said.

But the Shugart letter cautioned Ms. Thomas: “Canada does not want to be the partner that is reducing normal bilateral interactions.”

The deputy minister of Foreign Affairs asked the Department of Defence to check with Global Affairs before cancelling or postponing any future engagements with the People’s Liberation Army.

“This should follow consultations with Global Affairs and be paired with careful communications strategies to avoid becoming inadvertently linked to the current situation.”

Michael Chong, the Conservatives’ foreign affairs critic, and James Bezan, the defence critic, said in a joint statement that the documents show a “stunning lack of leadership” from Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal government.

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“Clearly, the Prime Minister and Liberal ministers are more concerned about how Beijing might react than in defending Canadian interests. The Liberal government has become so timid that it can’t even say no to Chinese soldiers arriving on our territory.”

A calendar of coming engagements for 2019 between the Canadian military and China’s PLA listed up to 12 events, including PLA soldiers attending the Canadian Security Studies Program at Canadian Forces College in Toronto and a United Nations peacekeeping course at the Canadian-army affiliated Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston. It also included the delegation of athletes for the Military World Games in Wuhan and delegates to attend a PLA National Defence University International Symposium in China.

Canada sent 114 athletes, 57 coaches and support staff to the Military World Games.

The documents released by Global Affairs under access-to-information law also include internal deliberations about how China would react if Canada sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait.

One page appears to be military intelligence from the U.S. Department of Defense marked “Secret // released to Canada, FVEY,” meaning approved for release to Canada and other countries that are members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network. This page includes a detailed discussion of how China and its military vessels reacted to a French frigate traversing the Taiwan Strait in April, 2019.

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