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analysis

Chinese President Xi Jinping, pictured on Oct. 27, secured a third term this week.Wang Ye/The Associated Press

In June, 2016, during an official visit to Canada, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took umbrage when a reporter asked about his country’s human-rights record, berating her for posing a question “full of prejudice against China and an arrogance that comes from I don’t know where.”

At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was working hard to improve ties with Beijing – it was still more than two years before the Meng Wanzhou saga would derail this effort – and Mr. Wang’s angry response shocked many and made headlines around the world.

Looking back, it’s clear this was not some gaffe but rather a preview of the far more aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy that was then emerging in Beijing. Canada has been on the sharp end of that policy for years now, and with Chinese President Xi Jinping securing a third term this week and figures such as Mr. Wang rising in prominence, it shows no signs of going away.

How Canada will respond to an ever more assertive and powerful China is unclear. Ottawa is preparing to unveil a long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy and, after leaving the position vacant for the better part of a year, has named a new ambassador to China, Jennifer May.

But while current and former officials who spoke with The Globe and Mail were highly complimentary of Ms. May, a career diplomat with China experience, the challenges facing her are massive.

“I was delighted to see Jennifer May get the job. She’s got a great reputation,” said David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012. “But you need a prime minister and government that have a policy and vision for Canada in the world. And I don’t think we have that.”

Even within cabinet the message is confused. Earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly spoke about the need to rebuild ties with China, but other senior ministers have said Canada should reduce trade with Beijing and other authoritarian states.

Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne told a Washington audience last week that Canada wants “a decoupling, certainly from China, and I would say other regimes in the world which don’t share the same values.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has said Canada should end any dependency on authoritarian states such as China for vital products and stand up for fellow democracies being bullied by Beijing.

“We cannot allow Lithuania to be coerced over its policy toward Taiwan, or South Korean companies to be harassed and boycotted in retaliation against legitimate national security decisions taken by Seoul,” she said.

One senior Canadian government official predicted Canada-China relations would not return to the rosier pre-2018 era, before China engaged in hostage diplomacy by jailing Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest in Vancouver on an extradition request from the United States. That was also before China’s draconian crackdown on opposition and dissent in Hong Kong and before the full extent of Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region had been exposed by journalists and human-rights groups.

The official said Ottawa’s dealings going forward with Beijing would be cautious and even skeptical, based on the understanding that China is fundamentally hostile to democratic values and is not a partner but rather a rival. In particular, there will be a good deal of skepticism regarding Chinese efforts to invest in Canada, the official said. In 2018, Canada notably blocked a Chinese state-owned construction company from buying Aecon, one of this country’s biggest construction companies.

According to a second senior Canadian government official, Ottawa’s yet-to-be-finalized Indo-Pacific strategy will stress that Canada intends to keep working with China because of its position in the world.

That official pointed out, however, that many people in government do not realize how difficult it will be to have a working relationship with China on issues such as climate change. In August, for instance, China suspended co-operation with the United States on a number of matters, including climate talks, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

The Globe is not identifying the two government officials in this article because they were not authorized to speak publicly about these issues.

Christopher Johnson, the president of risk consulting firm China Strategies Group and a former senior CIA analyst, said “middle powers have learned over time” how to deal with Xi Jinping’s China.

“They’ve said: Yes, I’m deeply economically dependent on China, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up my own interests and values.”

Mr. Johnson pointed to Australia as a country that has been “exceptionally brave and smart” on this issue, playing a leading role in several new alliances designed to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. That includes the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – commonly known as simply the Quad – an informal strategic forum of Australia, Japan, India and the United States, and AUKUS, a defence pact between Canberra, Washington and London, he said. “We’ve seen that there is definitely strength in numbers.”

Canada, however, despite being part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance alongside New Zealand and the three AUKUS countries, was not invited to join the latter alliance, something that took many in Ottawa by surprise.

“We’re absent from the groupings and alliances that are being formed to respond to the China challenge,” Mr. Mulroney said.

Mr. Wang’s outburst back in 2016 was a sign that Beijing was done with its foreign policy of “hiding our strength, biding our time.” Under Mr. Xi, China has reached true superpower status, and it is no longer enough for countries to simply have good economic relations with Beijing. Smaller powers such as Canada are now being forced to choose between holding their noses, in order to continue working with an increasingly aggressive state, and standing up for democratic values, then paying the cost when it comes to trade.

“We’re dealing with a different China, we’re in a different world,” Mr. Mulroney said. “We need to rethink things completely. And I don’t see an inclination or willingness to do that on the part of Ottawa yet.”