Andrew Potter: Hedging our bets with China was a mistake

By now it should be painfully obvious that we're going to have to pick sides. China is not our side.

By now it has dawned on even the most glossy-eyed internationalists that we are well into another sides-picking era of global geopolitics. The outrageous secret trials in China of Michael Spavor last Friday and Michael Kovrig this Monday are nothing more than punctuation marks on a storyline that has been obvious for some time now. 

Which is why it was enormously gratifying to see more than two dozen diplomats show up to seek admittance to Kovrig’s trial. The fact that none was admitted is unfortunate but largely beside the point — what matters is the public display of solidarity. Even more gratifying perhaps is the announcement (by Canadian officials) that the U.S. has promised to treat the two Canadians as if they were American citizens. After all, it was our acquiescence to a U.S. request to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport in 2018 that prompted Beijing to nab Spavor and Kovrig in retaliation. While Chinese officials have denied that what this amounts to is hostage diplomacy, they’ve also made it clear that the fate of the Michaels is tied to that of Meng. 

What makes the public support from all of these countries so remarkable is that a lot of them — the Czechs, the Finns, the Romanians — have very little to gain from sticking their neck out for Canada. More to the point, every one of these countries has good reason to wonder just how committed Canada itself is to this show of collective strength. After all, it was only five years ago that senior members of the Liberal party were freely — privately, but freely — saying that as far as the Liberal government was concerned, the U.S. was yesterday’s news and China was the horse Canada was going to ride into the future. 

And while a lot has changed over the last five years (not least of which is the fact that Donald Trump has come and gone as president of the United States), it remains incomprehensible that it was just last year the Canadian National Research Council placed its disastrous COVID-19 vaccine bet with CanSino Biologics, a Chinese company with close ties to the Chinese military. What are our allies to make of the fact that only last month, the federal granting agency NSERC partnered with Huawei to sponsor computer engineering at Canadian universities. Or that Canada’s visa office in Beijing is owned and staffed by a Chinese police force?

Whether it is a matter of naïveté, bad faith, or outright cravenness, Canada continues to give every indication that it is a country that is still hedging its bets. 

There are two basic things you need to know about Canada’s position in the world. The first is that we are bordered on three sides by ocean. The second is that we are bordered on the fourth side by the United States. That is a simple geopolitical reality whether we like it or not — and Canadians have expended a great deal of energy over the past half century or so making it clear just how much we dislike it. 

Yet for all the reflexive anti-Americanism that has been the meat and mead of Canadian nationalism, Canada’s leadership class has usually been pretty good about understanding who is in charge. Over the course of the 20th century, from the Ogdensburg agreement of 1940 and the post-war establishment of NORAD to the Free Trade Agreement of 1988, we cemented that reality with a defence and economic alliance.  

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Paradoxically, what this continental defence and economic security arrangement has given us is the opportunity to let our internationalist pretensions run wild. One of the weirdest things about Canada is the extent to which we like to frame our place in the world in a-geographic terms. We imagine that we are as threatened as anyone by the mix of post-Cold War failed states, opportunistic terrorism, regional authoritarianism, and humanitarian disasters. By the same token, we like to presume that we are as well-positioned as any other country to do something about all of this.  

As the dean of Canadian defence policy Kim Nossal points out in a recent paper, this a-geographic security fantasy is reflected in the official defence reviews that Canadian governments have released since the 1990s. Or take, for example, the 2017 Liberal policy statement, entitled Strong, Secure, Engaged, which rejects the idea that Canada’s privileged geographic location mitigates these global threats for us. As Nossal concludes, when you look at how Canadian governments actually talk about our security situation, you get little sense that, thanks to the Americans, Canada occupies “one of the safest spaces in contemporary global politics.”

You can see the logical leaps, then.

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Once you’ve convinced yourself that Canada’s security is disconnected from the geographical imperative of the American security guarantee, it’s only a few steps to the conclusion that who we choose as our global strategic partner is actually a meaningful choice. And if it is true, as China’s president Xi Jinping has claimed, that the East is on the rise and the West is in decline, then why not throw your lot in with the new big dog on the block?

It should be clear by now just what an enormous mistake this has been. Canada’s announcement late Monday that it was joining the U.S., the U.K., and the European Union in imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over their treatment of the Uyghurs suggests that as they stood outside the courthouse in Beijing, the Canadians looked around at the dozens of diplomats who had gathered in solidarity, and drew some obvious conclusions. 


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