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United States Ambassador to Canada David Cohen in his office at the U.S. Embassy on Dec. 9.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

China is the democratized world’s greatest threat and the Biden administration is looking to Canada to help confront Beijing’s growing military, political and economic ambitions, U.S. Ambassador David Cohen told The Globe and Mail Thursday.

In his first interview since taking up his duties on Tuesday as U.S. envoy to Canada, Mr. Cohen said one of his goals is to work with Ottawa on ways to challenge China on everything from cybersecurity to human rights.

“I think for both Canada and the United States, and you could argue for every democracy in the world, China is our greatest threat,” he said. “The fact is that China is very much aligned in an anti-democratic fashion and an authoritarian fashion.”

Mr. Cohen praised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for sharing the same values as U.S. President Joe Biden when it comes to human rights and the “need for democracies to combat authoritarianism, and China is the poster child of what we are trying to combat together.”

Mr. Cohen, a lawyer and lobbyist who served as senior adviser and chief diversity officer at U.S. communications giant Comcast, said Canada and the U.S. have had a “historic and powerful alliance” and he is pleased the Trudeau government is in the process of formulating a new China policy, which The Globe has reported will be part of an larger Indo-Pacific strategy.

“It is important as Canada articulates its China policy, as the United States refines its China policy, that we do so in alignment with each other,” he said. “Canada is arguably our most important ally and being in alignment on a fundamentally critical relationship like China is really important to that long-term relationship.”

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The Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy is being crafted in the wake of the worst rupture in relations between Ottawa and Beijing in half a century and while memories are still fresh on how China reacted to the arrest of a Huawei executive at the Vancouver International Airport. Beijing arbitrarily jailed two Canadians – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – for more than 1,000 days and imposed trade restrictions on Canadian exports.

Mr. Cohen said Washington is concerned about China acquiring critical rare-earth minerals or taking over key industries in Canada that could benefit Beijing’s military and national security apparatus. Canada and the U.S. have signed a memo of understanding to reduce their reliance on China for rare-earth minerals that are crucial to high tech and military products, such as smartphones, electric cars and weapons guidance systems.

Of particular concern to Washington, Mr. Cohen said, is the potential threat of Chinese cyberactivities that could wreak havoc in Western financial markets.

“China is a state actor and has been known to hack and invade computer networks in critical industry areas,” he said, which is why both countries should be “aligned and working together and being prepared to surveil and block those types of threats.”

Mr. Cohen did not want to comment on why Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance – which also includes Australia, Britain, the U.S. and New Zealand – that has yet to ban or restrict the use of 5G mobile gear from Huawei, the Chinese communications giant.

But he said the Prime Minister has promised a decision will be coming soon. He noted Mr. Trudeau has pointed out that Canada’s major telecoms have already opted to buy equipment from Western suppliers. Huawei’s 5G technology has been banned in a growing number of democratic countries over fears that Beijing could use it for spying purposes.

In a sign that Ottawa is taking a tougher approach to China, the government ordered a Chinese state-owned telecom in August to cease operating in Canada over national security concerns. China Mobile was told to either wind up its subsidiary, China Mobile International Canada (CMI Canada), or divest itself of the business. The order came to light after the telecom challenged it in court on Sept. 7.

In July, Ottawa unveiled revised guidelines laying out new areas of concern for Ottawa as it scrutinizes foreign takeovers and investments in key sectors of the economy, as well as funding of high-end research. The move was in response to concerns raised by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about the loss of intellectual property and sensitive technology to foreign countries such as China.

The U.S. ambassador, who presented his credentials to Governor-General Mary Simon earlier this week, acknowledged there are serious bilateral disputes such as Buy America and President Biden’s plan to offer US$12,500 grant to people who buy electric vehicles manufactured in the United States.

The electric-car proposal would kneecap Canada’s auto industry and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has said it would violate the renegotiated North American free-trade pact, now renamed as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Mr. Cohen said the electric-car proposal is part of a massive US$1.7-trillion Build Back Better legislation that is working its way through the U.S. Congress.

“It has not passed. It could be amended,” he said, adding the two countries are trying to work their way through these disagreement.”

He noted that Canada is also stepping up efforts to be the world’s leader in making batteries that could be used to produce electric vehicles manufactured in the U.S..

On Buy America, Mr. Cohen said the President is talking about U.S. government procurement, which the ambassador said is “only a small percentage of the overall procurement pie.”

“In more than 30 states, the largest trading partner is Canada … and most of them don’t have Buy America,” he added.

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