The Conservative Party’s selection of Erin O’Toole as its new leader brings to the opposition helm a politician who advocates a far more skeptical approach to China at a time when relations between Ottawa and Beijing are already strained.
Mr. O’Toole, who in recent months has met with representatives of the Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong activist communities, is openly critical of what he calls Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “fawning” approach to China and has described a vision of co-ordinated action among large democracies to press Beijing to change.
In his rhetoric and approach toward China, Mr. O’Toole hews more closely to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – and even U.S. President Donald Trump – than to the more cautious and amicable approach that has been the hallmark of Liberal governments dating back to Pierre Trudeau. He calls himself the “natural inheritor” of the Stephen Harper approach to policy; in his early days in office, Mr. Harper refused to attend the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and pledged support for Canadian values abroad over selling out “to the almighty dollar.”
“It’s the Cold War again,” Mr. O’Toole told The Globe and Mail in an extensive interview about his views on China in late May. It’s time, he argued, that “the West should adjust and start curtailing some of the risks that the Communist system poses.”
Among the policies he advocates for Canada: banning Chinese tech giant Huawei from 5G networks; increasing the scrutiny of foreign investments on national security grounds; pursuing partial decoupling from the Chinese economy; and a more skeptical approach to foreign students and professors engaged in sensitive research in Canada. “There should be more screening,” he said.
That should mean reducing economic ties with China, he said, arguing that any cost borne by Canada and its allies is worth it – particularly if it hurts Beijing enough to compel a change in course.
China’s “political system is a threat to Canadian interests, to Canadian citizens – certainly in Hong Kong – and they are one of the largest funders and implementers of cyberattacks,” Mr. O’Toole said. “So there are threats inherent from the Communist system that Canada has to take seriously.” He pointed to the initial response in China to COVID-19, which included arresting doctors for discussing the spread of a SARS-like virus.
“The foot dragging and covering up of the early outbreak of the coronavirus is probably having a greater economic impact than anything outside of wartime,” Mr. O’Toole said. “Is that not a threat? We could have 25-per-cent unemployment in Alberta. This is the eyes-wide-open effect that we need to see Beijing with.”
The Chinese government says it notified the World Health Organization about the new coronavirus in a timely manner. And the country’s leadership has frequently touted its commitments to foreign trade and international organizations under the United Nations.
Mr. O’Toole also favours altering Canada’s stand on Taiwan, the self-administered region that Beijing claims as its own territory. Mr. O’Toole would “put caveats to the ‘one China’ policy based on Chinese misconduct.” That could mean supporting Taiwan’s membership in international bodies such as the WHO and the International Civil Aviation Organization, where Taipei is currently represented formally by Beijing.
And, he argued, if China does not abide by its own international agreements, such as those regarding Hong Kong – to which Mr. O’Toole has a direct connection through family members who live there – then countries such as Canada may need to consider a corresponding “realignment” on issues such as Taiwan.
While he stopped short of backing diplomatic recognition of Taiwan – a move that would almost certainly cause Beijing to sever relations with Ottawa – he says Canada should “constantly re-evaluate the policy” based on China’s conduct.
A more hawkish approach to China is out of step with large segments of Canada’s corporate community, which has continued to seek closer ties with the rising superpower – the world’s most important manufacturing centre and an increasingly prominent source of capital, expertise and technology.
The Liberals came to power in 2015 intent on reinvigorating trans-Pacific ties with a country whose continued economic growth has given it increasing global influence. Canada struck a series of agreements with China, including one to begin negotiations for a free-trade agreement and another to pursue an extradition treaty. Those priorities have since fallen by the wayside, particularly amid Beijing’s fury over the arrest in Canada of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is wanted on fraud charges in the United States.
Ottawa has condemned Beijing’s conduct in its Xinjiang region – where authorities have sent hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Uyghurs, to political indoctrination camps – and its crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong, but it has not taken dramatic action in response to the arrest in China of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, nor to Chinese authorities blocking imports of some Canadian agricultural goods.
But Canadian public sentiment has soured on China in the past two years, opinion polls show – and a re-evaluation of policies on China is taking place in a number of liberal democracies.
Mr. O’Toole envisions Canada and the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand – as well as other developed democracies such as France and Japan banding together to press the Chinese government for change.
“We can’t stand idly by when the rules-based international order is being flouted. We have to rebalance it or enforce it,” he said. “Because we’re small, the only way we can do it is with our allies.”
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.