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Facing China’s wrath, Canada cannot go it alone

With the firing of former ambassador John McCallum and the US raising the stakes in the battle against Huawei, Canada must counter China with a coalition, argues Michael Petrou.

By: /
29 January, 2019
John McCallum speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, November 9, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The combination of China’s meteoric economic rise and its disdain for the rule of law, human rights and international norms meant a confrontation between it and the West was all but inevitable.

Canada, like so many other countries hoping to cash in on China’s growth, would not have chosen to be at the forefront of that clash. Even now, it appears Ottawa would like to see its problems with China somehow resolved quietly.

John McCallum, who until this weekend was Canada’s ambassador to China, might have been foolish when he volunteered to a Toronto Star reporter that it “would be great for Canada” if the United States dropped its extradition request for Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, but it’s unlikely anyone in Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s government disagreed with him.

It was Canada’s detention of Meng at America’s request that triggered a collapse in Canada’s relationship with China. In apparent retaliation, China arrested former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor. Another Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, was sentenced to death for drug trafficking, after a hasty retrial decided that the 15-year sentence he was given in November was too lenient.

Trudeau fired McCallum following his comments to the Toronto Star, which came after he had told Chinese-language journalists in Markham, Ontario that Meng had a strong case to avoid extradition and that her extradition would not be a “happy outcome.”

These initial comments, which did not cost McCallum his job, undercut the Trudeau government’s public arguments that Meng’s case would be decided by a judge and was immune to political interference.

It’s unclear why McCallum said what he did in the first place. Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Erin O’Toole has said it would be “naïve” to think McCallum delivered his China-soothing message to Chinese-language media without direction from the Prime Minister’s Office. Liberal MP Marco Mendicino, in an interview with the CBC, said floating such a theory without evidence is “irresponsible.” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said McCallum’s position as ambassador became untenable because he did not accurately represent the government’s position.

McCallum’s explanation that he “misspoke” does beg the question of why he would have called a news conference exclusively for Chinese-language media if he was not planning on saying something other than what Trudeau and Freeland had publicly said numerous times already.

But regardless of the message McCallum might have wanted to send to Beijing, it seems the unhappy outcome he hoped wouldn’t come is now upon Canada. On Monday, the US Department of Justice announced 13 criminal charges of bank and wire fraud against Meng, Huawei and its affiliates. America also filed a formal extradition request for Meng.

“Regardless of the message McCallum might have wanted to send to Beijing, it seems the unhappy outcome he hoped wouldn’t come is now upon Canada.”

Canada’s best option now is not to cling to the dimming hope that it might yet sidestep China’s wrath but face up to the scale of what this confrontation means and accept the role that has been thrust upon it. Canada’s dispute with China is not about its extradition treaty with America. It’s not about Meng. It’s not even about Canada. It’s about what China can get away with, and what it will count on getting away with in the future.

Canada is therefore entirely right to frame this dispute as an issue that must concern all countries that operate according to the same norms and rules as does Canada. Trudeau and Freeland have been reaching out to allies to build a coalition, and China’s anger at this strategy speaks to the vulnerability it exposes. Canada alone is weak. Add America, the European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and others, and Beijing’s calculations shift.

This argument has some global resonance. “By bullying Canada, Beijing wants to set an example: Every country that stands in China’s way will be hit with full force. Beijing’s calculus is simple. It expects Canada’s allies to put their own good relations and economic interests with China above solidarity with Ottawa over Beijing’s unprecedented aggression, allowing China to get away with it,” Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, wrote in a recent essay.

“All countries committed to freedom and the rule of law must send an unmistakable signal that they will stand together to prevent this. They need to raise the price for China’s behavior before it is too late.”

But Benner is unusual for his frank belligerence. Others, even among Canada’s closest friends, are reluctant to expose themselves. Another German political analyst agreed to speak on the issue only if he wasn’t named. “Which tells you all you need to know about our relationship with China,” he said.

Berlin, in other words, is scared, just like Paris, Brussels and Wellington. But that doesn’t mean a re-evaluation isn’t happening in German political circles, too. “Some key decision makers in Germany are waking up to a world in which China is more of a strategic competitor than a strategic partner,” the analyst said.

Other Western nations will eventually come to similar conclusions. It’s in Canada’s interest that they be convinced to do so sooner rather than later.

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