After more than two years of rocky relations with Beijing, the Liberals have offered little on the campaign trail about how it will handle future relations with China, while the Conservatives have laid out a blueprint that could lead to Chinese government retaliation against Canada.
The Canada-China relationship, which has yet to become a focal point of the election, has been frayed since Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S. government on Dec. 1, 2018, which was followed by the Chinese arrests of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in apparent retaliation.
While the Conservatives have referenced China 31 times in their platform, with a handful of additional references to Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and the Liberals have only one reference to China in a policy section about responding to “unacceptable behaviour” from authoritarian regimes, which also takes note of Russia and Iran.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) has championed a new approach to Canada’s relationship with Beijing. His party’s platform outlines a government that would shift trade priorities away from China, recognize the Chinese persecution of Uyghurs as genocide, target Chinese foreign influence operations in Canada, ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G infrastructure, sanction China’s “worst human rights offenders,” withdraw Canada from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, support pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong, and have “greater political co-operation” with Taiwan.
The NDP platform pledges, if it forms government, the party would “stand up” to China with a “strong and coherent strategy” to defend Canadian interests, as well as work with international allies to “lead a robust and coordinated international response to China’s disregard of the rule of law.”
Neither the Bloc Québécois nor the Green Party addresses the Canada-China relationship in their platforms.
While not spotlighting China by name nor the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, the Liberal platform seeks to continue the government’s work on the declaration against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations. The Canadian-led declaration has been endorsed by 65 nations and the European Union.
Former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques, who was posted to Beijing from 2012 to 2016, said the decision not to spotlight Canada-China relations in the Liberals platform is a reflection on how it has handled its relationship with the growing superpower.
Given what is known about the “dark side” of China’s behaviour, its repression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, its persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, its increased pressure on Taiwan, and how badly China managed COVID-19 from the onset, Mr. Saint-Jacques said Canadians would expect all parties to have “well developed” policies on China.
“We are at a stage where we clearly need a revised engagement strategy,” he said.
“I would have hoped that the Liberals would have been more forceful in their platform. Maybe they just came to the conclusion that it was better to remain silent on this issue [so] Canadians would not pay attention to it,” he told The Hill Times in a phone interview.
“Because the crisis with China has been going on for so long, all the parties have had a lot of time to think about this issue,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said. “On the issue of China, my impression is Trudeau is lost at sea. He didn’t understand China when he became prime minister … the arrest of the Michaels was a brutal wake-up call and he has been in catch-up mode. But again, he doesn’t seem to have a clue of where to go.”
He added that Mr. Trudeau should come out with a policy on the issues Canada stands for in its relationship with China and what the strategy will look like, noting that Ottawa can be more forceful on China as Beijing relies on Canadian exports.
Former Conservative staffer Rick Roth, who was a communications director to then-foreign affairs minister John Baird, said the plan Mr. O’Toole has presented is a “very thoughtful and detail-oriented plan” that can be contrasted with that of the Liberals.
“For [Mr. O’Toole], it’s going to be a matter of leadership on the world stage. That’s the premise of how he wants to present himself against Justin Trudeau,” said Mr. Roth, now a vice-president at Global Public Affairs.
Mr. Roth said the lack of Liberal attention on the issue is a recognition that foreign policy has not been their “strong suit.”
“It’s definitely a recognition that they’ve kind of lost their way on foreign policy and there needs to be a bit of a reset,” he said.
He also noted that the government has more responsibility to conduct the business of diplomacy behind the scenes, which Mr. O’Toole doesn’t have responsibility for. “He can be much more blunt in his rhetoric. He can be much more pointed in his criticism of other countries. And he can be much more detailed in the steps he would take,” Mr. Roth said.
Mr. Roth said he didn’t expect the issue of Canada-China relations to be the focal point of any remaining days of the campaign unless there is a development in the case of Ms. Meng. But he said if a question is asked on the topic at the two debates, Mr. O’Toole will use it as an opportunity to showcase the need for a change in direction on the world stage and contrast it with some of Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy failures, such as not being able to secure the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor after more than 1,000 days in Chinese detention.
Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu told The Hill Times on Aug. 25 that some Canadian politicians have been putting “personal political interests” above Canada-China relationship.
While stressing that China adheres to the principle of “non-interference in internal affairs” and that he would “not comment or interfere” in the Canadian election, Mr. Cong said that China “firmly” opposes anyone that is “hyping up issues related to China or smearing China.”
Asked if that was a reference to the Conservative Party, he added: “Some people put their personal political interests above the interests of the Canadian people as a whole and hype issues related to China.”
Former Canadian diplomat Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, said that if the Conservatives formed government and their plan is fully implemented, it would be a “revolution” in the Canada-China relationship.
He noted that some pledges, like the carbon border tariffs, will be hard to implement due to World Trade Organization obligations. He added that to disrupt supply chains with China, it would require laws with “a lot of teeth,” which would effectively lead to a lot of government interference in the free market.
“China is not a country that lacks its own retaliatory powers,” said Mr. Houlden, who was the director general of the East Asian Bureau at the then-named Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
He added that some of the policies pledged by the Conservatives could be met with a “pretty powerful response from the Chinese side.”
He said he was surprised that the Liberals didn’t offer more details on their plans for Canada’s relationship with China, especially after the Conservatives came out with such a detailed plan.
“I think they may feel a little bit vulnerable on China because they have been unable to solve the issue of the two Michaels,” he said, noting that he doesn’t think Canada-China relations will play a major role in the campaign.
Liberal incumbent Ken Hardie (Fleetwood-Port Kells, B.C.), who has served two terms in the House since 2015, said while out door knocking he has heard many different views on Canada’s relationship with China, from those in line with the views of the Chinese government and to those who are opposed.
“There are clearly people who live here … who tend to be more in sync with mainland China, with the Chinese government. And there are others who go so far as to be quite afraid of them,” said Mr. Hardie, a member of the Canada-China Legislative Association.
“We hear everything from we shouldn’t have supported the United States in the detention of Meng Wanzhou because it was just simply the wrong thing to do, right through to [those who] are really worried about the influence China and the Chinese government seems to have in our communities,” he said.
Jocelyn Coulon, a former policy adviser to past foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion and author of Canada is Not Back: How Justin Trudeau is in Over His Head on Foreign Policy, said the Conservative Party should seriously think about Canada’s relations with China and not draw up a list of sanctions that no other country in the Western world would join.
He said the Conservatives policies on China are “too excessive,” noting that European countries have been clear with the Biden administration that they don’t want confrontation with China.
“When you look at the Conservative platform, you see a party that almost wants to break diplomatic relations with China,” he said, noting that they should have come up with a response that is “much more responsible” on the relationship.
He said if the Conservatives formed government, the policies laid out in the platform would “certainly” lead to a retaliation from Beijing, especially as it relates to policies on Taiwan.
“There is an understanding in the Western world that you have to tread very carefully on the Taiwan issue,” he said.
“I understand that the Conservatives are angry about what’s going on between the two countries, but at the same time, if you want to run this country and want to engage on the international stage, you have to be careful with the relationship with China,” he said, adding that Canada has to move in tandem with its allies.
Mr. Coulon noted that the Liberals are quiet in their platform on the relationship because they are concerned about the future for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
He said at the minimum, the Liberals should have taken a similar approach to the NDP in their platform on China. “But I don’t know why they have chosen to almost not talk about China,” he said.
The Hill Times