Canadians are tying themselves in knots trying to fathom the China conundrum.
How does a mild-mannered middle power push back against an aggressive superpower?
The answer is that it doesn’t, because it can’t. Not on its own.
The reality is that huffing and puffing won’t bring any Chinese walls tumbling down. Setting aside fears that a war of words will further provoke Beijing, the bigger risk is that empty rhetoric will only distract us.
Retaliation offers only the illusion of retribution. Unilateralism deludes us into thinking it makes a difference.
China has already made clear, by ransoming our citizens and holding our farmers hostage, that it cares not a whit what we think or say. But that doesn’t mean Canada is powerless to respond.
The key is that we should avoid the temptation to act alone. Because we are far from alone in being bullied by Beijing.
The list of aggrieved peoples has never been longer. It’s not just the traditional trio of Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan, but many of our other friends who are facing a similar fate.
Australia, India, the Philippines, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. — these are just a few of the countries antagonized and aggrieved by China in recent days, months and years. This is where our leverage lies.
Absent from our intensifying domestic debate about “Who lost China” is that we have lost sight of the bigger playing field. Our partisan divide and internal blinkers are blinding us to the international dimension of the China challenge, which goes far beyond Canada.
The domestic argument pits two former prime ministers — Jean Chretien and Brian Mulroney — against each other. Instead of arguing among ourselves about how we must stand up to Beijing, we need to open our eyes to the tectonic shifts in China’s foreign policy posture.
The era of China casting itself as a force for stability in world affairs, pledging non-interference and vowing “never to act as a hegemonistic power” (apart from its historic claims to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Tibet) is now ancient history.
Today, the Middle Kingdom projects military power across Asia, economic power in the West, and soft power everywhere.
It is the abuse of that power that hits home in Canada, with the arbitrary incarceration and persecution of the “two Michaels” — diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — in retaliation for Ottawa fulfilling its treaty obligations to arrest Huawei’s senior executive Meng Wanzhou. But the abuses go far beyond Canada.
Sweden remains in an uproar over the 2015 kidnapping of a citizen, Gui Minhai, who published books on China. Held without trial for years, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment this year and allegedly renounced his Swedish citizenship.
Australia’s bilateral relationship is even more fraught, given its far greater economic exposure. China is suspected of secret cyberattacks and intimidation on university campuses. Beijing cracked down hard on imports from Australia after the country asked questions about the origins of COVID-19.
Hong Kong and the U.K. are both in China’s crosshairs again, decades after the handover of the former British crown colony to the mainland in 1997.
Beijing’s 1984 pledge to respect “one country, two systems” is in a shambles this week after it imposed a national security law that overrides local rule, ending Hong Kong’s era of political autonomy and the promise of democracy.
Britain is opening the door to three million Hong Kong people seeking citizenship, and is developing a plan, code-named Project Defend, to disentangle the U.K. from its own economic dependence on Beijing.
India is once again immersed in a deadly conflict with its neighbour over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, an echo of their 1962 border war when China took possession of Aksai Chin.
India said 20 of its soldiers died after fighting broke out last month, while China refused to disclose its own casualties. In retaliation, India has banned nearly 60 Chinese mobile apps from its rapidly growing online market as bilateral ties spiral downwards.
Across East Asia, Chinese belligerence in the open seas has led to conflicts with Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Against that global backdrop, Canada’s entanglements with China — caught in the middle of a trade war between Washington and Beijing — need to be put in perspective.
The idea of a prisoner swap between Huawei’s Meng and our “two Michaels” is wrong in law, but also wrong-headed in international relations.
Spy swaps are a traditional quid pro quo when countries get caught in (illegal) espionage and use extra-legal means to extract the guilty parties. Publicly acquiescing to blatant hostage-taking would be acknowledging that it is open season on foreigners forever.
Canada is not alone in being bullied by China; it should not act alone in responding.
We need a clear-headed reassessment of bilateral relations — including our outdated twinning relations between cities.
But the real opportunity for us lies in making common cause with countries that also have bitter first hand experience with Chinese intimidation.
Beijing is in no mood to heed our laments. Only by linking up with each other can middle powers leverage their influence and amplify their voices, using the only language China understands.
Regg Cohn is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.