Canada’s China Relationship Edges Toward Strategic Clarity – Analysis


By Paul Evans*

This is a febrile moment in Canada–China relations. Diplomatic interactions are on ice, trade in goods is hot, public feelings are sour, the ‘3Ms’ dispute over detained citizens remains unresolved, and a federal election campaign has just been launched.

Recent parliamentary activism in Canada includes a rancorous set of committee hearings, a House of Commons resolution labelling Chinese actions in Xinjiang a ‘genocide’, a Senate vote narrowly defeating a similar resolution, and many MPs joining networks and activities opposed to Chinese actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

The public mood is agitated and negative. The media and information landscape is somewhere between critical and hostile. The online world is toxic and dangerous terrain for those trying to explain — much less defend — Chinese actions. A whiff of McCarthyism floats in the air as some insist on loyalty tests based on views of Chinese communism. ‘Elite capture’ is offered as an explanation of how academics, businesspeople and politicians who support engagement are witting or unwitting CCP agents. A ‘disinformation’ website exposes views that are claimed to reflect or amplify CCP propaganda.

Departments and agencies are quietly examining Huawei’s role in the 5G network, measures to protect intellectual property and strategic resources, university collaborations, and military deployments in contested waters.

The Trudeau government is seeking balance and deflecting charges that it is soft on China. On the one hand it uses hard language to denounce specific Chinese actions — particularly ‘hostage diplomacy’ and ‘arbitrary detentions’ — and continues to rally support from friends and allies to pressure Beijing on the two Michaels, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

On the other hand, it shies away from blanket criticisms of the CCP and rhetorical overreach. Prime Minister Trudeau and his ministers state that they do not see China as an adversary and instead frame their objectives through a mixed bag of ‘Cs’ — competition, confrontation, cooperation, collaboration and coexistence. The government has clearly moved beyond the engagement approach it embraced as late as 2018, but is yet to articulate a new strategy like the United States’ ‘strategic competition’. It also prevaricates on whether it prefers to frame the region as ‘Asia Pacific’ or ‘Indo-Pacific’.

This is partly due to an aversion to overarching strategies in any matter of foreign affairs, and the sensitivities around the 3M crisis that puts Ottawa in the middle of a high-stakes, zero-sum US–China conflict. It also reflects the difficulty a minority government faces in refurbishing or replacing an engagement philosophy that no longer has broad public support or meets the complexities of an increasingly assertive and repressive China under President Xi Jinping.

The election campaign may well force an end to this strategic silence. Foreign policy is rarely decisive in Canadian elections and is usually a third-order priority in party platforms and candidate debates. But this time, China may be a wedge issue that changes the equation. The Liberal government uses targeted actions and rhetoric to deflect criticisms that it is soft on the China threat, while the Conservatives smell an opportunity to paint it as drifting, ducking and Indecisive. Its 163-page platform devotes more space to China than any other foreign country.

The Conservatives’ approach is based on working with democratic allies and friends to face down CCP threats to Canadian institutions and values, plus the desire to advance freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law abroad.

Specific prescriptions include expanded use of Magnitsky sanctions against Chinese officials, providing asylum to human rights and democracy proponents, a crackdown on Chinese influence, and banning former senior public office holders from contracts with the Chinese government. It would also elevate relations with Taiwan, decouple critical parts of supply chains away from China, further restrict Chinese investment, join the Quad, participate in freedom of navigation patrols, attempt to keep China out of the Arctic, and withdraw from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

It remains to be seen how much traction the platform will generate and whether it will force a Liberal response. Events matter, and deterioration in the cases of the two Michaels, further incidents inside China or on its periphery, or a dramatic event in US–China relations could light the fuse.

If the Liberals return to power on 20 September, and at this moment that is the best bet, articulating a China strategy and making a series of overdue decisions will be unavoidable. It will also be exceedingly difficult amid the US–China confrontation, a fragmenting world order, competing domestic priorities, and a toxic atmosphere that makes civil discussion — much less a new consensus — so hard to achieve.

The preference for flexibility, nuance, pragmatism, and case-by-case reactions and alignments runs headlong into a cry for mobilisation, a bifurcated world view of friends and enemies, and a desire to line up with allies in pushing back against an existential threat from the CCP.

Some hope that bilateral relations can revert to normal when the 3Ms problem is resolved and the current storm passes. But this ferocious storm is more likely the indicator of an approaching winter. If US–China relations continue to descend into Cold War, it may in fact be a sign of geopolitical climate change that will shape Canadian options and debate for a generation.

As Canadians assess that future, Australia will be invoked frequently. For some it is a source of inspiration and a plucky example of how to stand tall, push back, and prepare for long-term contestation. For others it presents a cautionary tale of overreaction to an exaggerated threat and reckless rhetoric that provokes a more powerful country, increases reliance on the United States and undermines the fabric of its multi-cultural society. If there is a golden mean in between, by inclination and instinct Ottawa will seek to find it.

*About the author: Paul Evans is Professor and HSBC Chair in Asian Research at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. 

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

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