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Time to reset Canada-China relations on a path to peace

Since the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, Canada-China relations have reached their worst point since diplomatic relations were established in 1970. Ten days after Meng’s arrest, China arrested Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig on espionage charges. Canadian government and press practically unanimously claimed this was merely retaliation, although China maintained the arrests were unrelated. Now that Meng and the two Michaels have returned home, it is time to set Canada’s relationship with China on a path to peace and cooperation. Global problems from the pandemic to climate change and beyond require cooperation between nations.

However, the U.S. appears set on confrontation with China. Ongoing for a decade and worsening during the pandemic, the U.S.’s build-up toward confrontation with China escalated further with the formation of the AUKUS security alliance between Australia, the United-Kingdom and the United-States. Openly billed as an alliance to “counter” China, offering Australia nuclear-powered submarines, the alliance represents a dangerous escalation: Australia is a non-nuclear power, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and an Asia-Pacific power. Canada needs to be careful about what it could be dragged into if it chooses to continue blindly following the U.S. lead.

Meng Wanzhou & the Two Michaels in Context

The RCMP arrested Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport on December 1st 2018 at the United-States’ request. When Spavor and Kovrig were arrested 10 days later, Canada’s government and press charged China with engaging in hostage diplomacy, implying that the Michaels were only arrested in response to Meng’s arrest. This assumes the two Michaels were innocent victims of China’s vengeful and baseless persecution. However, matters are more complex: they very well could be spies and the findings of the Chinese may not be entirely unfounded.

The secrecy surrounding the judicial process is often taken as evidence of China’s arbitrariness, but secretive proceedings are not unusual in trials of alleged spies. China alleged that Spavor sent photos of secret military equipment to Kovrig as well as other foreign entities. Closed-door courts are common practice for trials about “second tier state secrets” in China as in many other countries, as evidence presented would relate to military secrets. Canada’s government and media also complained about the Canadian embassy’s  “lack of access” to the two Michaels throughout the proceedings,  hypocritically ignoring Canada’s own highly secretive process of finding and expelling alleged spies, with the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) recently declining to give even names or nationalities.

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig has been a member of the International Crisis Group since 2017. The ICG is a Brussels-based “non-government” organization with financial ties to politicians and governments of NATO countries. It worked to legitimize regime change operations in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and North Korea, among other countries. China has seen the U.S. and its allies destabilize and overthrow unfavourable governments across the world for decades. NGOs like the ICG routinely play key legitimizing roles in these campaigns. Given Kovrig’s associations with what is effectively a Western regime change outfit, the possibility that Spavor shared state secrets with Kovrig is not taken lightly.

Whether or not they are spies, taking unauthorized pictures of military equipment and sharing it with multiple foreign parties is certainly grounds for investigation. Further, Western espionage in China is extensive: China discovered and dismantled a large-scale, high-profile CIA spy network as recently as 2010 until 2012. The New York Times recently reported that a top secret CIA memo warned stations and bases around the world that a concerning number of U.S. spies (particularly in China, Russia and Iran) were being executed, arrested or compromised. The CIA even recently announced it would open up a new mission centre focused on China.

In any case, if the Canadian government merely wanted the Michaels’ safe return home and believed they were detained in retaliation for Meng’s arrest, why not refuse the extradition request and be done with it? The government had the authority to do so, as Michael Kovrig’s wife soon began to point out publicly and legal experts confirmed.

This brings us to the reasons for Meng’s arrest. The U.S. alleged that Huawei had misled HSBC and involved it in business with Iran that violated U.S. sanctions. These unilateral, illegal sanctions were imposed despite Iranian compliance with the JCPOA (the “Iran nuclear deal”). The sanctions have seriously hurt the Iranian economy and the Iranian people; prevented Iran from accessing all sorts of international investment, trade and business partnerships; and even prevented the import of desperately needed medical equipment during the pandemic.

Are Canadians really so invested in ensuring Iran is deprived of medicine, investment and technology that it’s worth detaining a Chinese CFO for nearly 3 years as two Canadians remain imprisoned in China? What was the government’s real priority—ensuring the Michaels’ safe return, or obeying the U.S. in its quest to punish anyone who does business with Iran? Should respect for cruel American sanctions really be the basis for Canada’s relationship with China or any country around the world?

While the sanctions target Iran, the detention of Meng and the diplomatic dispute that has ensued is part of a US-led campaign targeting China. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken blasted China over the two Michaels not long before they were released:

The practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals to exercise leverage over foreign governments is completely unacceptable… People should never be used as bargaining chips. [!]

This despite President Trump openly saying he would use Meng as leverage for securing a better trade deal with China in 2018, leading Meng’s defence team to argue precisely that she was being used as a bargaining chip.

This sort of hypocrisy has dominated public discourse on this diplomatic dispute in Canada, and it only serves to sow confusion. A proper understanding requires knowing China’s point of view on Meng’s arrest.

The arrest of an executive in a major Chinese company in a very strategic sector, 5G technology, puts China in a position where it needs to respond. China is still a developing country, and it intends to continue developing and improving the living conditions of the Chinese people. The scale of improvements in living conditions for the Chinese people over the past 70 yeas (and especially 40) has been drastic. The massive reduction of poverty in China represents an historic achievement for the world. Moving from producing relatively low-value consumer products to the manufacture of high tech, high-value goods is a set to be a major pillar of China’s path to new levels of prosperity.

As such, Meng’s arrest was seen as nothing less than a serious attempt to sabotage China’s economic future. The goal is to sabotage its climb up the value chain and to prevent it from competing with U.S. tech companies for market share. No one should be surprised that China would take serious measures to defend itself against a foreign powers’ attempts to strangle its economic future using hostage diplomacy.

Moving Forward in Canada-China Relations

To date, the Canadian government has acted as a reliable ally in the U.S.’s New Cold War against China. Beyond detaining Meng, Canada has sanctioned Chinese officials and recently seized imports allegedly produced with forced labour in Xinjiang.

Canada also participated in provocative military drills around Taiwan in October. On October 2-3, the U.S. led joint military exercises with allied countries in an explicit effort to “send a message” to China. These exercises saw two U.S. and one British aircraft carrier along with 15 warships from Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and the Netherlands near Okinawa and in the Philippine Sea. The three carriers then moved into the contested South China Sea, and operated with Australian, Canadian, Japanese and New Zealand warships. This is the often-omitted context of a little less than 150 Chinese military air crafts flying through Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in early October.

In a separate military drill in mid-October, the U.S. and Canada sailed warships through the Taiwan strait. This came around the time that the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. has had marines and special operations forces stationed in Taiwan for training purposes for about a year. With all of this in mind, there is no escaping the conclusion that Canada, the U.S. and company are actively and knowingly threatening peace in the Taiwan strait.

The need for Canada to change course is dire, but prospects are grim.

Following Meng and the Michaels’ return home, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau said Canada’s “eyes are wide open” when it comes to normalizing relations with China. He said the government would follow a fourfold approach to China: coexist, compete, cooperate and challenge. It remains to be seen what this will look like in substantive terms. Early reports on a new Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy suggest Canada will continue along the same course toward confrontation, with the strategy slated to focus on “containing” China in partnership with the U.S. and allies.

Canadian public opinion toward China has also worsened in the wake of the Meng-Michaels dispute. A public opinion poll conducted two weeks after the Michaels’ release found that 87% of Canadians support or somewhat support Canada joining the U.S., Britain and Australia “to contain China’s growing power.” 43% of survey respondents thought relations between the Canadian and Chinese governments should be unfriendly. More than 75% thought the Canadian government should ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G telecommunications networks. (Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes Alliance that has yet to do so.)

Canadian media has fanned the flames of hostility toward China. In April, Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail published an opinion piece explicitly calling for regime change in China. Mainstream media outlets amplified unsubstantiated claims of Chinese election interference. Unsubstantiated claims that the Michaels’ detention was arbitrary continue to be the standard in Canadian media. Joining in the Cold War propaganda blitz, Canada’s public broadcaster CBC recently ran a report on tomato products in Canada connected to so-called “forced labour” in Xinjiang. Canadian media has also amplified calls to ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks, although there is more diversity in views expressed on this subject. As in many countries, there has been no shortage of fearmongering about China’s purported international ambitions in Canadian media.

Canada’s main opposition parties have also played into escalating tensions. Following outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unsubstantiated claim, Canada’s opposition parties passed a non-binding parliamentary motion labelling China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide. Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberal party abstained from the vote, and Canada’s unelected Senate would later decline to endorse the label of genocide.

The Conservatives and the ostensibly social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) also attacked Trudeau for being excluded from AUKUS. All of this is totally unsurprising from the Conservatives: their open hostility toward China in the 2021 federal election campaign and their unsubstantiated claims of Chinese election interference suggests they will continue pushing for confrontation.

The NDP offers little alternative. Prior to the Michaels’ release, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh attacked Trudeau for Canada’s “exclusion” from AUKUS, claiming it was a missed opportunity to pressure China to release the two Michaels. Trying to secure the Michaels’ release by joining efforts to further militarize the Asia Pacific is of course extremely dangerous, especially when this could be accomplished peacefully simply by ending Meng’s detention. Following their release, prominent NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus tweeted “There can be no return to normal with the Chinese government.”

Despite all this, if the U.S. and others are going to continue their bid to counter, contain or reverse China’s rise, Canada should take no part in whatever dangerous campaigns that would entail. As it stands, the Canadian government has participated in escalating tensions, and the major opposition parties are aligned in pushing for further escalation.

China is not seeking confrontation with the United-States, Canada, Australia or any other country for that matter. However, it will not sit idly by as the U.S. and its allies sabotage their economic future, slander them in diplomatic forums, build antagonistic security alliances with neighbouring countries (and countries around the world), surround China with military bases, openly arm and train separatist forces throughout China, engage in provocative military drills near Chinese territory, and sail warships near China’s shores, in adjacent waters and in waters they claim.

Nor should China back down in the face of any of this: the era of Western domination is coming to an end, and the West must get used to dealing with non-Western countries as sovereign peers, not (former) colonies they can push around at will. China has fought for its right to independence and self-determination for well over a century. It is not about to risk losing its hard-won gains in the face of war-games by the U.S. and its friends.

Canadians need to put serious pressure on their elected officials to take a sensible approach that prioritizes peace and cooperation with China. While many in the peace movement have risen to the occasion, other movements must understand that confrontation with China is not in their interests. China’s achievements fighting poverty, climate change and COVID-19 are inspiring. Movements should study and learn from these achievements and defend them from the attempts of imperialists to undermine them.

At the very least, China’s achievements should be used to challenge our governments to do better. If a developing country like China can prevent mass deaths in a global pandemic, take meaningful steps to fight climate change, and pull off a world-historic poverty reduction campaign it begs the question: why can’t Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, do more on any of these fronts?

Regardless of one’s assessment of China’s politics, no progressive social movements’ goals are advanced through war or confrontation with China. The stakes in a possible war are too enormous to ignore. The Canadian state needs to be pushed toward de-escalation from a principled stance in support of all nations’ right to self-determination free of interference from imperialist powers.

Many see the Meng affair as a textbook case of Canada’s inevitable, sheepish deference to Washington’s foreign policy priorities. Yet Canada has played a constructive role with China in the past. It established commercial relations to sell wheat to mainland China during the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s, and Trudeau Sr. recognized the People’s Republic before most Western countries in 1970, nearly a decade before the U.S. As Canada and China put a major diplomatic dispute behind them, the pandemic continues to rage and the climate crisis worsens. The U.S. is responding with escalating hostility, even seemingly preparing for a possible hot war. Canada needs to break with this dangerous path and set course for peace and cooperation with China.