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Politics Trudeau’s tough talk marks shift in attitude towards China

Meng Wanzhou’s arrest hasn’t just changed China’s approach to Canada, it is shifting Canadian political parties’ attitude to China.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau is taking a tougher tone with China. A month or two ago, he seemed to be cautiously waiting for the current chill with Beijing to pass. Now he is warning that China is more aggressively seeking “to get its own way on the world stage,” and stating that Western democracies are recognizing they will need to stand up to Beijing.

That’s a big shift. Even after China responded to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou by detaining two Canadians in December, Mr. Trudeau called for their release in carefully diplomatic tones. Now, he’s talking about standing up to Beijing.

Is it frustration at China’s intransigence over the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor? A signal to Beijing? Or a political response for a Canadian public that wants a tougher tone?

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It’s all of the above. But that last one is important.

Ms. Meng’s arrest hasn’t just changed China’s approach to Canada. It is shifting Canadian political parties’ attitude to China. And that may last long after Ms. Meng’s case is closed.

In the United States, a trade war with Beijing is driven by President Donald Trump’s tactics, but the appetite for confronting China comes from a deep bipartisan consensus of Republicans and Democrats.

Is Canada now headed toward a similar, China-wary, bipartisan consensus? It is moving in that direction.

Two weeks ago, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer delivered his first foreign policy speech, featuring a 10-foot-pole proposal for relations with China – looking elsewhere for trade, recognizing that China’s values and interests are incompatible with Canada’s, and retrenching rather than expanding relations.

Mr. Trudeau, who until six months ago was still speaking of the possibility of a free-trade agreement with China, was talking about China in darker tones on Tuesday, saying “there are a lot of countries in the world, including the United States and [in] Europe, which are worried about the choices China has been making recently.”

He added: “China is … making stronger moves than it has before to try and get its own way on the world stage and Western countries and democracies around the world are pulling together to point out that this is not something that we need to continue to allow."

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In part, that reflects the Canadian strategy of trying to muster other countries to pressure Beijing over the detentions as well as asking the U.S. to press the cases of the two Canadians.

At the moment, Chinese officials are refusing to speak to their Canadian counterparts about it. That’s why it is noteworthy that a parliamentary delegation headed by Toronto Liberal MP Rob Oliphant is in China, trying to raise the case: Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland can’t get a meeting with her counterpart, so there’s a faint hope that lower-level delegations may pass on a message.

But Mr. Trudeau is also talking about Western countries, including the U.S., banding together to be “firm” with China – just as Beijing is in a trade war with Mr. Trump’s America.

“There’s been a change in tone,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, the Canadian ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. He said he welcomes it: It reflects the cold reality of dealing with the so-called New China, which has become more “doctrinaire, aggressive, arrogant.”

It also suggests the PM now sees the crisis in Canada-China relations launched by Ms. Meng’s arrest at the request of the U.S. as more than a brief spat. “Mr. Trudeau is realizing that were are caught in a situation that is going to last a long time,” he said.

Many Canadians probably want to hear their PM talking tougher, too. The arrest of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor has “hardened Canadian public opinion in a real way,” said Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa who served as Mr. Trudeau’s foreign-policy advisor in his early days in office. He said he thinks it will have a lasting effect on Canadian policy toward China.

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Of course, China’s attitude toward Canada might depend on what happens to Ms. Meng. It may take years before her extradition case is heard. When that’s over, no matter the outcome, no matter what party is in office, Canadian leaders won’t be rushing back to free-trade talks. Or anything like it. The Canadian attitude to Beijing will remain wary.

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