China: Mary Ng, Guy St. Jacques and David Mulroney

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Given the deep and tense chill in the Canada-China relationship, it seems a bit incongruous for a cabinet minister visiting Beijing to tweet about ice cream.Yet that’s just what Small Business and Export Promotion Minister Mary Ng did at a World Economic Forum meeting in early July. There was no public comment about China’s trade embargoes, which have kneecapped our canola, beef and pork industries; nothing about democratic rights in Hong Kong; nothing about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians who have now spent seven months in jail in China, ostensibly in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Now come revelations that a senior Global Affairs Canada official, reportedly at the instigation of the Prime Minister’s Office, asked our former ambassadors to clear their public commentary with the department. When opposition parties called for parliamentary hearings into the allegations, the Trudeau government used its majority to vote them down.

The federal government looks committed to hearing no evil, seeing no evil and doing nothing on the China file, for fear of further upsetting Beijing. That is no policy for Canada.

Without parliamentary hearings, questions remain. The PMO has denied the allegations, but if the request did emerge from the PMO, was it initiated by the Privy Council Clerk, as head of the public service, the national security adviser or the deputy ministers at Global Affairs?

With a federal election just months away, this only feeds the Conservative impression that the public service leans Liberal. Worse, it’s a sign that Justin Trudeau’s government seems to be learning all the wrong things from the Chinese. The guardrails between our politicians, public service and judiciary are fundamental to democracy, and this is a norm that needs to be respected by all parties. One would have thought the government had learned from recent controversies, too: Ignoring norms has already cost the government a clerk of the privy council, a national security adviser and an unfairly keelhauled vice-chief of the defence staff.

We need a realistic, not a romantic, China policy. It should start with the recognition that China is an authoritarian state, a strategic competitor and systemic rival. It will never follow Western democratic norms because that would destabilize the Communist Party – the root and base of the People’s Republic of China.

We have to contain what even Mr. Trudeau acknowledges is China’s “aggressive” and “assertive” behaviour. We need to deter Chinese efforts, as reported by our intelligence agencies, to destabilize our democratic elections. We need to engage, not just for trade and investment, but to ensure peaceful co-existence and detente. Otherwise, China will continue to turn the screws: seafood may be next.

For self-respect – we are, after all, a Group of Seven and Group of 20 country – we need to push back.

First, we should launch an appeal to the World Trade Organization over China’s illegal actions against our canola, beef and pork. We need to encourage like-minded countries to join us, starting with the United States, which got us into this mess by asking us to arrest Ms. Meng.

We should also support Taiwan in its application to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Keeping the vibrant democracy out of international institutions just because China wants it that way no longer makes sense.

Let’s also put the spotlight on China’s abysmal human-rights record, starting with Hong Kong. Canada has one of the world’s largest diasporas of Hong Kongers, many of whom sought Canadian citizenship after the Tiananmen Square massacre. We invested in Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and we need to do so again. We helped organize the Lima Group, to tackle the crisis in Venezuela. We’ve hosted a conference focused on democratic reform in Ukraine. Why can’t we do something similar about China’s incursions?

And then there are the million-plus incarcerated Uyghurs in China. While we practise reconciliation with Indigenous people, Beijing enforces re-education. We are committed to multilateralism, so why not take advantage of multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Commission?

We need to hit those calling the shots in the Communist Party. We should lift the visas of Chinese students in Canada who are related to party officials. A Canadian education is a valued commodity in China.

A strategic approach to China means thinking about the long game. Where do we want to wind up? What are our assets and vulnerabilities, our overriding objectives and goals? Where do the pieces fit together? Engagement, containment and deterrence should be the guiding principles. Trying to muzzle our China ambassadors – foreign policy experts – is not the way to achieve a better way forward.

The controversy over phone calls made to two former Canadian diplomatsasking them to “check in” with Global Affairs before commenting on China policy reached its inevitable conclusion Tuesday, when the Liberals used their majority to vote down the Opposition’s call for Parliamentary hearings into the affair.

The Conservatives and other critics saw the calls as attempts to silence David Mulroney and Guy Saint-Jacques, both of whom served as Canada’s ambassador to China and are regularly called upon by the news media to comment on this country’s frozen relations with Beijing.

It was a clumsy move on the part of the Trudeau government, one that preserved its losing streak when it comes to exerting pressure on the wrong people.

But Global Affairs has since apologized and said its intention was never to muzzle the diplomats. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has also apologized, at least to Mr. Saint-Jacques. In the absence of parliamentary theatrics, let’s move on to the main event.

What remains, and is the critical issue here, is the fact that Ottawa doesn’t have a visible policy for dealing with China in the wake of the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last December. The Chinese businesswoman is currently out on bail and living in a mansion in Vancouver while fighting an extradition request from the United States.

Beijing responded to Ms. Meng’s arrest by jailing two Canadian citizens on bogus national-security charges, moves that amount to political hostage-takings. China also retaliated by suspending all canola imports from Canada, as well as beef and pork imports.

To date, the Trudeau government’s response has been to protest the arrests and seek moral support from allies, including the less-than-reliable Trump administration in the United States. But Ottawa hasn’t taken any retaliatory measures, which has left a void for commentators to suggest actions that would show a little spine.

Mr. Mulroney, for instance, advised against non-urgent travel to China and suggested Canadian tourists avoid “a repressive detention state” – a phrase accurately describing today’s China, but which was raised in his unwelcome phone call from Global Affairs.

Another former diplomat, writing in The Globe and Mail this week, said Ottawa should consider withholding visas for students related to members of China’s ruling Communist Party, among other get-tough measures.

And then there’s the fact Canada imports at least twice as much, in dollar terms, from China as it exports to it. China, in fact, buys only about 5 per cent of Canada’s exports, the vast majority of which – 76 per cent – go to the United States.

In other words, Canada has the leverage to ban targeted Chinese imports that might sting the leadership in Beijing the same way Beijing’s carefully targeted bans on Canadian canola and meat are making the Trudeau government wince.

That’s precisely what Ottawa did after U.S. President Donald Trump put tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum in 2018; it retaliated with tariffs on products, such as bourbon and prepared foods, made in key Republican states.

It’s odd that Ottawa was more willing to play hardball with its biggest trading partner and most important ally, while it treats China with unexplained deference and caution.

This could well be because, in spite of all of Mr. Trump’s many flaws, his country is not an amoral and authoritarian prison state that is entirely detached from the rule of law. The United States largely follows the rules, and it has independent courts where complaints can be heard.

China, on the other hand, has no limits on government power, no law and no compunction about hurting smaller countries that displease it. As an opponent, it outmatches Canada in every category. It is a grizzly bear to our field mouse.

It may be that Ottawa has chosen not to poke the bear while it negotiates in the background. In doing so, the Trudeau government has correctly stuck to its guns about arresting Ms. Meng, and has not given in to calls to summarily overturn the rule of law and let her leave Canada.

But in the absence of any outward signs of progress, that policy is under fire from those experienced in Chinese relations, who think more can be done, and from Canadians who don’t like seeing their fellow citizens being held hostage.

It would be useful to know whether the Trudeau government is playing its hand well, or simply playing dead.

Saskatoon / 650 CKOM

11:00 – Is Canada’s federal government taking a page out of China’s playbook and blurring the lines between politicians, the public service, and the judiciary? After the Trudeau government was accused of trying to muzzle former diplomats and voted down an investigation into the matter, former diplomat Colin Robertson says yes. Robertson also says Trudeau’s inaction on our trade dispute with China is no kind of long-term strategy, and we need to push back. He joins John now to talk about how Canada should be tackling our dispute with the Asian superpower.

LIVE: Colin Robertson, former diplomat and a vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.