The same talking points have been making the rounds in Ottawa for years.
When you clear away the dizzying spin from Sunday’s unveiling of Canada’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy, the weird thing is that this was supposed to be the new “China policy” we’ve all been promised for the past four years, and as far as Canada-China relations go, the strategy is more or less an empty box.
It’s true enough that the ministerial statements and the documents setting out the strategy, which envisions an outlay of $2.3 billion over several years, depict China has an increasingly “disruptive” power, and notice China in other ways. But they all sound like “the Earth is round” or “night follows day.”
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China engages in coercive diplomacy; China disregards international norms; China wants to reshape the Indo-Pacific region in ways that conflict with Canadian values; China ignores the United Nations’ rulings on the South China Sea and blocks the UN’s inquiries into the persecution of the Uyghurs — that sort of thing.
To the extent that there’s anything by way of a new China policy in there at all, it could be made to seem that the thinking in the Trudeau government has finally come around to the way former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper saw China in 2006 and the way former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton saw China in 2010.
It’s hard to say, because the trick is to frame things in such a way that nobody will notice that when he came to office in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was possessed of a messianic vision of himself as the human conduit for a happy and flourishing marriage between China’s state-capitalist kleptocracy and the West’s liberal rules-based global order.
Four years is a long time, and the necessity of abandoning that hubris was made brutally evident in 2018, when Beijing abducted Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The kidnapping threw the Trudeau government for a loop. For a full year, the preferred policy option was to live in denial and bumble through the world-stage embarrassment of having to fire our China ambassador, the Chrétien-era cabinet minister John McCallum, for having taken China’s side in the prickly matter of Canada’s detention of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou.
The heiress to Xi Jinping’s “national champion” telecom was picked up in Vancouver on a U.S. Justice Department extradition warrant relating to charges of fraud and conspiracy. Canadians generally contented themselves with the proposition that the Meng fiasco was a mere matter of U.S. president Donald Trump being beastly, pulling us into his quarrels with China. But by the final days of 2019, then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne allowed that some sort of new China policy, or “framework,” would have to be cobbled together.
It was to be done in collaboration with civil society and the business sector with a view to “a relationship with China where the interests of Canada stand out, where the fundamental principles, the values, will be present.” That never happened.
At one point, because of his uncertainty about what Beijing wanted Canada’s China policy to be, Champagne was publicly flustered about whether he was permitted to say “Taiwan” out loud. Trudeau had to reassure him that yes, when thanking the plucky democracy for its help in providing Canada with pandemic supplies — even though Beijing refuses to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty and routinely threatens to invade and conquer the island — it was OK to say “Taiwan.”
A few months after his mention of a China framework, Champagne said the thing would have “cornerstones” too, and “very clear rules and standards that will frame that relationship; Canadian interests to frame that relationship; and values and principles including human rights.”
By the end of the second year of the Two Michaels’ confinement, Champagne was obliged to explain to a House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations, the creation of which his government had opposed, that the framework was actually in place already, but it was evolving, and that it had three prongs: co-operation in such matters as global warming, competition in trade, and challenging China on human rights.
These were the same talking points that had been making the rounds for years. And this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly described the “new” approach to China this way: “We will compete with China when we ought to and we will co-operate with China when we must.”
Last year, Joly’s predecessor, Marc Garneau, had sketched the outline of a new policy by offering three words: co-exist, compete and challenge. By the time the post was handed to Joly, a China policy was to be entrenched in an Indo-Pacific policy and the work of crafting it was handed to a panel of “experts.” The first draft of the policy didn’t even mention China. Curiously, while China is mentioned at least in passing 50 times in the 26 pages of the new Indo-Pacific Strategy, the main 1,321-word readout from Joly’s office last Sunday doesn’t mention China once.
Meanwhile, in the real world, time waits for no one. In September 2021, Canada was left out of an Indo-Pacific intelligence arrangement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It wasn’t until earlier this year that Canada finally caught up with its other partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing protocol — the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand — in barring Huawei and ZTE from Canada’s core 5G internet connectivity infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Canada was left out of the 12-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, a major collaborative partnership that includes the United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia.
Clearly, some serious rebranding was necessary, there was a lot of catching up to do, and that’s what Sunday’s photoshoot and media availability on the Vancouver waterfront was all about. Meanwhile, at the very same time in China, hundreds of thousands of protesters were out in the streets of Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan and dozens of other cities across the country, and at more than 50 universities, and the protests were not solely about Xi Jinping’s merciless COVID-zero policy. Quite a few voices were lent to the proposition that it would be a good thing, all round, for Xi to disappear, and for China’s one-party dictatorship to be chucked into history’s dustbin.
The people of China have a right to demonstrate, Trudeau said earlier this week. That’s something, I guess.
I suppose you could call it “policy.”
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.
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