When Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were first illegally jailed by the Communist Party regime in Beijing, perhaps we could be forgiven for thinking that Canada’s weak-kneed diplomacy was the result of misplaced passivity. After all, Canadians and their government see themselves as global good guys, and anyway, attempts to befriend the Chinese Communist Party just made good business sense.
But then China doubled down on its punishment of Canada. It engaged in economic coercion through brutal tariffs against Canadian farmers; it pursued sham trials against Kovrig and Spavor; and it deployed “wolf warrior diplomacy” in an attempt to berate and bully us into submission.
We really shouldn’t have been surprised. A mere glance at our allies, including Australia’s resistance to China’s weaponized commerce, would have shown what we’re up against. China has used the same playbook against other countries, including those which did virtually nothing to offend the notoriously sensitive officials of the CCP. China’s strategy of aggression and hegemonic interests have been laid bare for all to see for years now.
Canadians themselves repudiated this aggression. National opinion polls reveal an overwhelmingly negative view, one that has intensified over the last half decade, toward the People’s Republic. Indeed, the Canadian public demands that their government stand up against the regime’s many abuses.
Despite all the facts, despite overwhelming public direction, the Trudeau government has stubbornly pursued a policy of appeasement. But if anything, Ottawa’s accomplishment has been to only encourage Beijing’s aggression. In the absence of any consequences for its actions, Beijing has only increased the pressure on Canada, including putting Kovrig and Spavor on trial as an example and warning to all.
Terry Glavin: Canada’s record with China is one of national humiliatioN
The Trudeau government’s approach represents a stunning betrayal of Kovrig, Spavor, and other victims of the CCP. It is not incompetence that led to this outcome, it is the consequence of calculation.
When Trudeau first took office, relations with the People’s Republic of China featured centrally in his own foreign policy. He pursued free trade, terrorism and cybersecurity cooperation, and sought to expand military-to-military joint exercises with the regime. He brought ambition to what was perfunctory before, even trying to train China’s winter warriors as recently as late last year. “Xiao Trudeau” would foster good relations on the strength of his personal charm and persistence.
Trudeau’s policy was rewarded only with Chinese aggression — from weaponized commerce to cyber-attacks on Canadian assets to Huawei’s 5G designs that would only subvert Canada’s data infrastructure. China’s “counter terrorism” was a guise for its genocide. And China’s military adventurism against allies from the Himalayas to the South China Sea accelerated, even while Trudeau’s government apparently sought to make the Chinese military more efficient.
The whole time, a network of well-connected lobbyists, corporate interests and insiders has worked to develop strategies to stay on Beijing’s good side at all costs, enriching themselves and their friends in the process. Their crowning achievement was perhaps the installation of John McCallum’s successor, Dominic Barton as ambassador, whose personal and commercial ties to China made him an undeniable example of how personnel in so many ways is policy. One can’t deny the success of this strategy. The government seems to have followed the pronouncements of these elites, to speak softly and do nothing, every step of the way.
As part of this strategy and narrative, an equivalence emerged where opposing China’s bad actions meant submitting to the U.S., feeding a fiction of a Canada caught in the middle between two equal great-power rivals. Anti-American smugness is a key pillar of a government whose ideology holds China up as a plausible alternative to the United States. The rise of Donald Trump fulfilled their prophecy: Pax Americana replaced with multipolarity.
In this context, when Kovrig and Spavor were taken hostage, Ottawa at first simply saw this as an inconvenience, a bump on the road to better relations.
Public outrage like we’re beginning to see might be the only thing that could change this approach, which could explain recent positive steps taken by the Trudeau government against China, including sanctions for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increased national security considerations placed on academic and economic links with China.
As Canada floats rudderless, Trudeau’s last hope rests with the United States. In lieu of developing and advancing a policy towards China, as part of a broader approach to the region, Canada now sub-contracts its interests to the Biden administration. Canada is only now beginning to align with an American approach that has held bipartisan consensus since well before Biden’s inauguration. Simply put, Canada remains without its own meaningful plan to deal with China’s aggression, lacks a comprehensive approach to engaging our critical Indo-Pacific interests, and continues a completely incoherent approach to foreign affairs.
The tragedy in all of this is that Ottawa’s weakness is not a victimless crime. The victims are Kovrig, Spavor, and the millions of others who live under the yoke of the dragon state. By doing nothing, we give tacit consent to Beijing’s aggression. It is long past time that this charade was brought to an end.
Shuvaloy Majumdar is Program Director & Munk Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and former Director of Policy to Canadian Foreign Ministers.