Skip to main content

Under President Xi Jinping, China is making an audacious effort to supplant the United States as the world’s superpower. Projecting economic heft through Made in China 2025, a plan to become the leading maker of next-generation technologies; military might with naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea; and diplomatic sway by building new trade corridors across Eurasia through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is determined to dominate the 21st century even as President Donald Trump’s America turns inward.

But China remains an oppressive autocracy, confining over one million of its citizens to internment camps and denying basic democratic freedoms to the rest. Thursday’s Munk Debate will clash over the resolution: China is a threat to the international liberal order.

H.R. McMaster.illustration by Jon Stich/The Globe and Mail

Democratic countries are locked in an existential struggle with the dictatorship of China’s Communist Party, says U.S. President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, and all free nations, including Canada, must band together to fight the threat.

A good place to start, H.R. McMaster says, would be for Ottawa to finally ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from its next-generation 5G network.

“It’s illogical to give China access to your communications infrastructure, because it’s a demonstrable fact that China is exfiltrating as much data-sensitive technology, intellectual property, as it can,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

Mr. McMaster will make his case Thursday at the Munk Debates, where he will team up with author Michael Pillsbury to argue that China is a threat to the liberal international order. Opposing them will be former United Nations Security Council president Kishore Mahbubani and Huiyao Wang, a former Chinese civil servant.

Munk Debates: Former UN Security Council president Kishore Mahbubani details why China stands to lose if rules-based order evaporates

Mr. McMaster – who spent a little more than a year in the Trump administration before being pushed out by the President – sees dealing with Beijing as a battle between freedom and tyranny.

“This whole problem can’t be framed as U.S.-China,” he said. “This is an issue between our free and open societies of the world and a closed authoritarian system that is not only victimizing its own people … but is promoting its authoritarian closed system as an alternative.”

Thursday’s debate comes at a fraught time for Sino-Canadian relations. After Canada served a U.S. arrest warrant last year on Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, accused by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation of breaking that country’s sanctions on Iran, China imprisoned two Canadian citizens on espionage-related charges and sentenced two more to death.

And Ottawa is conducting a lengthy review to determine if it should follow Washington’s lead and ban Huawei from its 5G buildout. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said last week he would make a decision before the federal election in October.

Huawei has insisted that it will safeguard Canadian data if it gets into the network. But critics argue that a Chinese law obligating companies to co-operate with the state effectively creates a backdoor for Beijing’s spy agencies to access Canada’s network.

“Look at the extinguishment of freedom there. Do you think any company can act in its own interests if those actions cut against what the party wants? Of course they can’t,” Mr. McMaster said. “The United States, and all countries, have been very slow to understand the pernicious threat to all of our freedom.”

Whether Canada, where Mr. Trump remains deeply unpopular, will want to take advice from an alumnus of his administration is an open question. But Mr. McMaster’s credentials are much more extensive than his time in this tumultuous White House.

A career soldier who retired last year as a lieutenant-general, he has had an unusual professional life. He was regarded as a capable field commander in both Iraq wars while simultaneously building a reputation as an academic. Before his turn in the Trump administration, he was best known for writing Dereliction of Duty, which dissected the poor decision-making that led to the United States losing the Vietnam War. Since leaving the White House, he’s taken up a fellowship at Stanford University.

Mr. McMaster argues that Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing a four-pronged approach to international domination. The first is using unfair trading practices to sell goods at enormous discounts; the second is stealing intellectual property and spying on companies; the third, indebting poorer countries with unaffordable loans linked to the construction of infrastructure in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and finally, trying to control strategic areas such as the South China Sea militarily.

The West, Mr. McMaster contends, enabled this rise by believing that opening markets to China would lead to the country’s political transformation.

“What China is undermining is the rules-based international order,” he said. “It’s clear now, under Xi Jinping, that the assumptions under which U.S., Canadian and other Western countries’ policies were based – the assumption that China, having been welcomed into this order, would play by the rules and, as it gained prosperity, would also liberalize its form of governance and actually give its people a say in how they’re governed – I think the opposite’s the case.”

A generation after China was allowed to join the World Trade Organization, the country has more than a million people in internment camps, shuts down almost all dissent, censors the internet and conducts mass surveillance on its own citizens.

“After Huawei’s CFO was detained – Canada detained her based on the extradition treaty – what did the Chinese Communist Party do? They took hostages,” Mr. McMaster said. “That should tell you all you need to know.”

Mr. McMaster was by all accounts a bad fit with Mr. Trump. Not only did the President reportedly get bored during the general’s lengthy briefings, they clashed over the importance of the international liberal order. Reports in U.S. media said Mr. McMaster unsuccessfully fought Mr. Trump’s decisions to pull his country out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.

One Canadian official, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, named Mr. McMaster as a key ally for Ottawa during its trade fight with the President. Mr. McMaster pushed Mr. Trump not to withdraw from the North American free-trade agreement and tried to dissuade him from imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, the source said.

For his part, Mr. McMaster was cautious bordering on cagey when the subject of his former boss came up. Asked if he believes Mr. Trump’s US$250-billion trade war with China is a good strategy for holding Beijing accountable, he steered the conversation in another direction.

“Well, the trade enforcement mechanisms, that’s not the strategy. There actually is, I think, a very well-developed China strategy that is being curated and is being co-ordinated with our allies,” he said, citing efforts to confront Chinese manoeuvres in the South China Sea and to prosecute industrial espionage by the APT10 hacker group as examples.

He does, however, laud Mr. Trump’s treatment of China broadly, singling out the moments when the President has complained that the United States previously did not take the threat Beijing posed seriously.

“There are a lot of people who want to pose a false dilemma of either continued passivity, in the face of China’s aggression, or war. Well, no, actually what we have to do is compete much more effectively,” he said. “That means being more effective ourselves, but also confronting Chinese forms of aggression.”