Bilateral relations between Canada and China are at an all time low. The arrest of Meng Hangzhou, a senior executive of the Chinese firm Huawei, at Vancouver airport late last year has resulted in a series of judicial and trade measures meant to punish Canada.
The Chinese version of events rings true on a number of points. The Liberal Party government of Justin Trudeau has acted much like an American vassal. Their fear of US President Donald Trump is tangible and the recent USMCA trilateral trade agreement is proof positive of that. Canada made concessions on several fronts – agriculture and auto while obtaining nothing more than lip service in return. The recent ‘lifting’ of steel and aluminum tariffs, hailed as a great victory by the Trudeau-Freeland duo, is really nothing more than a US insurance policy on Chinese dumping into their market. The panel disputes mechanism is dead in the water since it has no executive authority. On the vassal argument, the Chinese appear to have perceived correctly the absence of Canadian leadership and its willingness not to negotiate as equals on the international scene.
And the Canadians? Fear of the unknown, fear of reprisals and fear of fear itself is the animating force here. Of the many Canada-China experts I have consulted, all have chosen the path of least resistance and refused any notion of measures to punish China for its illegal detention of Canadians and pseudo trade measures taken by the Chinese to close their market to Canadian exports be it canola, pork, fish and others.
In both cases, with the USA and China, the common argument is to lay low and hope for the best. In the case of the detention of Michael Kovrig and other Canadians held illegally in China, the answer has been to beg President Trump to intercede as a sideline to the ongoing US-China trade war. Clearly Canadian authorities have forgotten Munich 1938 along with any principles Winston Churchill might have loaned us from his defense of British territorial integrity when faced with a mightier foe in 1940. All of this is proof positive that present Canadian foreign policy is not independent at all. It is malleable to blackmail, threats and big sticks. Fear is the codeword. Fear, and more fear.
Let’s take China’s case now. China has long abandoned its leadership of the non-aligned countries of the world. It has become a crass anti-democratic aristocracy of so-called communists acting like capitalists. Its behavior in the United Nations is cynical, brutal and devoid of any idea of elementary justice as evidenced by its continuing support for the criminal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The mass of consumers makes China’s blackmail of smaller capitalist countries even more powerful. In business lingo, they become the jealous market for Canadian agricultural products like canola, fish, pork.
How can a much smaller country like Canada overcome such powerful odds? Relying on trade measures is a losing game given the numbers. Up to now, Canadian authorities have been unsuccessful in moving the dial either by itself or relying on its so-called allies like Donald Trump’s USA. Such is the poverty of foreign policy in a country with material and intellectual riches beyond measure. PM Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland deserve blame for the present defeatism but the rot in Global Affairs began well before their arrival on the scene.
Many years ago, the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung called Western capitalist powers ‘a paper tiger’. Little could he have foreseen that the key to moving the dial on China is to understand that they too have become a paper tiger. The old dialectical law of the negation of the negation has transformed China into its opposite, a large unwieldy mass of minorities and capitalists run by a Communist Party autocracy and fully engaged in the pursuit of rapacious profit. Today’s China resembles the Soviet Union of yesterday, an edifice slowly crumbling under the weight of ever greater anticipated wealth.
To develop a successful China strategy, I propose four essential vectors of activity.
- Canada must pursue an independent foreign policy not only vis a vis China but with regard to its chief North American trading partner. It must act as a permanent foil to the Chinese argument that Canada is in Uncle Sam’s hip pocket.
- Canada must offer financial and political support to the Uyghurs in China to publicize their plight as well as that of other minorities like the Tibetans. This support should be dosed out in both covert and public manners optimized by appropriate timing. Canadian diplomatic missions need to support materially pro-Tiananmen Square events and activities.
- Begin to focus more on the regional partners involved in the Silk Road initiative like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Conclude strategic regional pacts to ensure Canada has a hand in the Silk Road initiative and can contain its regional expansion. This will generate leverage and engage (encourage) minorities.
- Pursue a soft power strategy in African and Latin American developing countries where China is present. Venezuela and Angola come to mind but they are not the only ones. Sri Lanka may already be too late. Competing with China in the developing countries for hearts and minds should procure numerous benefits and provide foreign policy leverage for the Canadians.
China is like a locomotive barreling down a narrow track. In some sense, it is unaware of its own inertia. It has lost its original sense of the dialectic and any just society it intended on creating. This is its critical weakness and it relates directly to the popular wisdom of Hollywood’s most esteemed Oriental detective and sleuth, non-other than Charlie Chan, and contained in his astute observation:
‘Mind like parachute, works best when open’.
A successful China strategy must replicate the genius of a Mohammad Ali boxing match. Weaving in and out, seemingly in an irrational fashion, the champion succeeds in dancing faster to avoid the powerful punches of his adversary, never tiring and confident of the end game.
Smoke and mirrors – the stuff of which a cogent, independent foreign policy is made.
*Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.