The unanimous February 22 vote in the House of Commons to declare China’s treatment of its Uyghur population a genocide, with cabinet abstaining, reflects an unsophisticated approach by Canada’s federal political parties when it comes to foreign policy writ large, and China most especially.
Even though foreign policy does not win elections in Canada, the Conservatives and the NDP have hollowed themselves out to chase populist ends on an international issue, while the governing Liberals muddle along, naïve about both the changing world and China’s place in it.
It was the Conservatives who put forward the motion on a “supply day,” when an opposition party can set the agenda in the House of Commons. Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole has decided to make looking tough on China one of his defining foreign policy planks, likely because it is an easy wedge issue. But there is nothing to back up this performative toughness, especially as his western voter base depends on sending agricultural exports to China and the Conservatives’ environmental plans are predicated on sending “clean” Canadian oil and gas to China and receiving carbon credits for doing so. We should remember that even though former prime minister Stephen Harper came into office declaring he was not going to sell out human rights in China on the altar of the almighty dollar, by the end of his time in government, he was sucking up to the Chinese regime for economic access.
The genocide motion was very much a reflection of this posturing, particularly as it did not come with any acknowledgement of the Genocide Convention, which obliges states making such a declaration to stop the genocide and punish the perpetrators. The party has half-heartedly mused about punishing China by ending the paltry sum Canada contributes to the Asian Infrastructure Bank and perhaps applying economic sanctions to the Xinjiang region of China, but there has been a deafening silence on how such a declaration would do anything to bring the perpetrators to justice before an international court.
As for the NDP, its support of the motion was primarily motivated by a desire to signal its virtue. The party’s foreign policy goals tend to be focused on increasing international development aid. There was little at stake for them in this vote, because it was non-binding on the government. Nothing they might have done would have mattered in the long run. That could change if this becomes a matter of confidence, as this is still a minority Parliament.
For Liberal backbenchers who supported the motion, the vote was also a chance to appear as a force for good in the world without actually committing the government to doing anything.
The Liberal Party itself is in the midst of a slow pivot away from the idea that trade and economic growth will deliver democracy and human rights to China. But this old view is alive and well in parts of official Ottawa, including at the Department of Global Affairs and the offices of some large corporate lobbyists. For such people, it’s still 1995, when Jean Chrétien led “Team Canada” trade missions to China and Chinese democracy was, surely, just one more lucrative trade deal away. (And if that wasn’t true, one could still say as much and be taken seriously.)
The Liberals have since stated they are moving toward a new framework on dealing with China, one which former foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne dubbed “tough but smart.” The ship of state, however, cannot turn on a dime. It has taken a lot of time for Canada to craft a more critical approach to its relationship with Beijing.
The government has been working with allies to ensure a proper genocide declaration can be made under the Convention that would have sufficient multilateral support so as to protect Canada from being singled out by China’s retaliatory measures. That explains the government’s abstention, although support for the motion from the Liberal back bench no doubt still rankled Beijing.
The entire western world is grappling with China because our economic interests have become so entwined with it. We have seen Australia suffer crushing retaliatory measures following its decision to block China’s ability to invest in nationally sensitive industries. Canada’s best shot at avoiding a similar fate is by taking action on China multilaterally.
Our domestic politics, however, are not well suited to nuanced strategy on international issues. Our political leaders prefer chest-puffing and showboating. It’s possible to get away with that on less consequential foreign files. China isn’t one of them.