ERIN O’TOOLE MP Durham
The diplomatic dispute between Canada and China is in its seventh month and seems to get worse with each passing week. Two Canadian citizens—Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor continue to face harsh conditions in a Chinese jail in a detention best described as diplomatic hostage taking. Two others have had death sentences imposed in legally unusual trials. Several hundred thousand Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong have been fearful of attempts by Beijing to impose an extradition law upon Hong Kong knowing that China does not recognize their dual citizenship. And the economic impact of trade disruption with China has already cost the Canadian economy billions. The situation is bad and is made worse by the fact that Justin Trudeau appears to have had no plan from the start of this China Crisis.
As the Official Opposition, the Conservatives have been critical of the indecision of the Liberal government, but we have also tried to be constructive. We have offered practical advice both publicly and privately and have offered to work on a bi-partisan basis to find a path to resolution. The Liberals have ignored our offers of assistance as well as the advice of China experts, former diplomats, and even a former Liberal Prime Minister. In this column, I identify the critical error made in this dispute and argue that the current government needs to reset its China strategy.
The biggest mistake made by Justin Trudeau in the China Crisis was his underestimation of the likely response by China following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in December 2018. For context, it is important to recognize that relations with China were already frosty after Trudeau’s unsuccessful state visit to China in 2017. Despite his well-publicized admiration for the “basic dictatorship” in China ahead of his election and the rapid approval of several Chinese takeovers of Canadian companies, Trudeau’s 2017 visit set back relations. Trudeau’s team promised that the state visit would spark bilateral free trade negotiations, but Trudeau’s insistence on publicly lecturing China on labour and other reforms as part of his “progressive agenda” campaign sank any hopes of a deal. Recently released documents show that senior civil service advisors told Trudeau to be careful about his posturing on this progressive campaign because it was setting back Canadian interests.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Justice Department and RCMP provided the Prime Minister with a special briefing about the pending arrest of Ms. Meng several days ahead of the arrest. As the CFO of one of China’s “national champions” and as the daughter of the founder of the company, Ms.Meng was the equivalent of state royalty in China. It is highly unusual for the Prime Minister to be personally briefed about an arrest, but officials knew that China would be upset by the arrest. The briefing gave the Liberals time to prepare a plan to mitigate the impact of this action, but they did not respond with a plan. Rather than reaching out at senior levels to explain the extradition process and the fact that Ms. Meng would be treated fairly and likely be released on bail quickly, nobody reached out.
This was followed by embarrassing public missteps and vacillations from Trudeau’s hand-picked Ambassador John McCallum, who had to resign in disgrace. No high level outreach from Canada and no Ambassador on the ground in Beijing. The stumbling out of the gate set this dispute off in the wrong direction.
From day one, the Conservatives viewed the arrest of the two Canadians for exactly what it was: a tit-for-tat state action by China. Accordingly, we knew the Prime Minister had to show that the Canadian state viewed the situation just as seriously. We urged the Prime Minister to become personally engaged quickly before the dispute got worse. The Liberals refused and tried to suggest the situation was a regular consular case, unsuitable for the PM’s involvement. Shortly after that, we recommended that the government update its travel advisory for China and to engage at all levels with the Chinese. The Liberals initially ignored this advice, but weeks later quietly updated the travel advisory. We echoed the calls from former Ambassadors to China to send a special envoy to try and restart conversations after months of diplomatic silence. Yet the situation deteriorated to the point that after five months, Minister Freeland made a public plea on CBC Radio for the Chinese to talk to her. It was an embarrassing public admission that the government had mishandled the dispute.
Instead of responding reactively to new developments in the diplomatic dispute, a Conservative government would implement a coherent China strategy, taking a harder line on China’s missteps. On trade a Conservative government would challenge China’s actions on canola and meat imports through the World Trade Organization and withdraw funding from the Chinese-run Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Conservatives would install a new Ambassador in China to reset diplomatic relations and ensure that all Ministers who visit China focus on the plight of the detained Canadians, rather than pretending things are completely normal and selling ice cream, as Minister Mary Ng insensitively did a week ago. A Conservative government will lead on the China file by jettisoning the photo-ops and fluffy politics and dealing with President Xi Jinping on a serious, peer-to-peer level as a G7 country should. Our approach would be, in the words of one commentator, “sober, substantial and sensible” after years of the opposite. At the very least, in my view, the Liberals need to give a sober second thought to their approach on China for the sake of our citizens and Canadian interests.