It’s time for our Government to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, (and talk and talk…..maybe) when it comes to the PRC?

John Gilmour ·· Posted: December 07, 2020

There has been a steady uptick in discussions within a number of different communities regarding how the Government of Canada (GoC) should best reconsider / rethink/ reset its relationship with the Peoples Republic of China, as represented by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is probably a result of the latter being unequivocally tied to attempts to covertly influence this country’s institutions, to the point its activities are described by national security agencies as a “strategic threat.” Some of these discussions have not only identified the nature of the threat, but have also provided a menu of the sorts of actions, both immediate and long-term, the GoC could and should take if it is indeed true to its word that some rejigging of the relationship is warranted.  

If recent history provides any indication of how the PRC will react to a formal and sustained push- back from Canada, or any of its international partners, we can expect the CCP to level charges of  “McCarthyism”, of the GoC operating with a “Cold War mentality”, or being a stooge of the US administration. We’ve already seen it is more than prepared to employ trade sanctions or elect to engage in hostage diplomacy. Opposition to anti-Chinese rhetoric will be supported, of course, by sources  in Canada with a vested interest (read $$$) in keeping trade and investment in China on an even keel, pockets of naive “Sinophiles” within the GoC that still believe China’s approach to governance can be moderated over time through engagement with the West, and certain Chinese “cultural associations” imbedded within Canada that are clearly mandated to toot the party line of the CCP (which does not, by the way, see a distinction between itself and “the state”).    

I thought I may as well jump on the bandwagon. Here are a couple of recent examples of the kind of challenges faced by those seeking a harder line vis-à-vis the PRC.   

Just within the past week, there was a call by MPs Niki Ashton and Paul Manley to release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. This represents yet another example of a lack of understanding on the part of certain parliamentarians regarding the pervasive threats posed by the PRC, both domestically and abroad. Of course the MPs chose to ignore that rule-of-law based processes have determined that Ms. Meng may have broken the laws of both Canada and the United States. And predictably, her erstwhile supporters have chosen to drag out the now familiar justification for her release that Canada’s relationship with China in general would be A-OK, and the PRC’s decision to resort to hostage diplomacy in this specific case would be reversed, if Canada wasn’t such a lackey for US agendas.  This suggests Canadian governments are incapable of making policy or legal decisions independent of superpower influence. More importantly, it ignores the reality that, absent current US-China rifts, China would still be guilty of state-sponsored cyber intrusions, industrial espionage, human rights abuses, hostage diplomacy, economic extortion in developing countries, foreign influence activities, and territorial land grabs deemed unlawful by international courts, all on a global scale. As noted above, the depth and breadth of these activities has resulted in increasing calls by international partners to get together to develop a collaborative strategy to mitigate nefarious PRC activities. In light of this, the ill-informed initiatives of MPs Ashton and Manley seem both poorly timed and devoid of any defensible logic or rationale. 

This unfortunate soap-boxing on the part of the two MPs was followed, also this past week, by representations from the Minister of Global Affairs (yes, the same Minister who this past June was quickly obliged to repay a $1.2 million loan held by Chinese state-run banks shortly after this arrangement was reported in national media) at the House of Commons Special Committee on Canada-China relations.   While at least acknowledging that China was “increasingly prepared to through its weight around to advance its interests”, and that there is a need for western liberal democracies to speak with one voice (speak only?), in the next breath he suggested the wrong kind of language from the GoC could do irreparable damage regarding the safety and well-being of the “two Michaels”, and (of course) Canada’s trade relations with China. At this session, a GoC “framework” for China, as opposed to a more comprehensive strategy, was described, one that outlined the need to engage the PRC on issues related to climate change, trade and human rights. What that means exactly remains unknown. It has taken the GoC more than two years to make a decision on whether to permit Huawei to participate in the development of 5G networks in Canada. This despite other key international partners having already disallowed any presence of that firm altogether for reasons of national security, and network providers having had to go to other systems as a default response absent anything in the way of a GoC decision.  So why should we expect a comprehensive and complex engagement strategy in anything that resembles a reasonable period of time?  What sort of constructive response can we expect from the GoC to the recent (nonbinding) House of Commons motion to come up with both a decision on Huawei and a plan on how to combat the PRC’s surveillance and intimidation of Chinese Canadians in Canada?  

Here’s my thinking.  

Those with any sort of a leadership role are there because, aside from other competencies, they have demonstrated the ability and willingness to make hard decisions. Provincial premiers from across the country are currently having to do just that as it relates to mitigating the effects of the Covid pandemic. Do they take steps leading to a possible shut-down of their communities as advocated by medical professionals, with the impact that would have on commercial operations and the livelihoods of individuals?  What ultimately takes priority? Physical or financial health?  So the same kind of question is posed as it pertains to China. It is now time for the GoC to make some hard decisions when it comes to the PRC, knowing the kind of reaction that can be expected in response to anything that is perceived as going against the broader CCP/PRC agendas.  What takes priority, the safety, security, principles and interests of its citizens, or trade and economics?   

Despite clear evidence over the years of the CCP’s / PRC’s various activities of nefarious programs of influence that serve to undermine Canadian values, sovereignty and national security, Canadian governments, both past and present, have waffled and wallowed in overwhelming timidity in terms of what to do in response other than proclaiming, for example, “It’s really not nice what you’re doing to the Uighurs!” (or Hong Kong demonstrators, or Tibetans) assuming there is any sort of response at all.  Our elected leaders ring their hands and rock back and forth asking “What to do? What to do?”  This approach has been described as “piecemeal and largely ineffectual” by Amnesty International (ouch!), hardly considered a right-wing organization.  

Let’s contrast that with what Australia has done in response to the PRC’s influence activities in that country.  Australia has much more to lose in terms of possible trade sanctions imposed by the PRC when compared to Canada (China accounts for one-third of Australia’s exports, only four percent in Canada), has also had its citizens subject to hostage diplomacy, and is obviously closer in geographic proximity to the source of the threats.  Australia was one of the first countries to ban Huawei for reasons of national security, has very publicly and firmly denounced China for its human rights abuses and illegal encroachment in the South China Sea, and has blocked a number of proposed Chinese investments, again on national security grounds. More importantly, it has introduced legislation (the Espionage and Foreign Influence Act) that, while not naming China specifically, was clearly structured to mitigate the sorts of activities the PRC is only too well known to engage in in that country. As noted in a recent piece by CBC reported Evan Dyer, Australia has also introduced legislation that bans foreigners from donating to politicians, requires telecom providers to block foreign interference, and created a registry of critical infrastructure to provide more information on who owns what in the country. The objective is to disrupt foreign interference, not just collect information in it. Knowing the possible consequences, Australia has chosen to adhere to its principles instead of its pocketbook.  The GoC should feel almost embarrassed given its comparable inaction.  

So what will the GoC do? Is it willing to get serious and make some hard decisions as it pertains to the PRC , that are based on principles and values, to walk the walk, not just talk the talk?  To eagerly and overtly work with international partners to counter PRC threats that go against the rule of law and national sovereignty and security? An Ekos poll from last week suggested eighty- three percent of respondents want Canada to do more in terms of standing up to China. So the numbers from a political perspective, for the GoC to be seen as doing something, are there.  

Or, in support of those with business or other interests in the country, or the views of naïve Sinophiles imbedded in key departments, will the GoC continue to give its lunch money to the school yard bully? Time will tell.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.


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