VANCOUVER—Canada should not be afraid to follow Australia’s lead in standing up to Beijing in policy and practice, say experts who have analyzed foreign relations for decades.
Ottawa has long prioritized economic gain over national security, worrying over the state of its relationship with the global heavyweight rather than voicing and defending its interests, say analysts.
The Australian experience shows that, over time, Beijing will make room for firmly drawn boundaries. A case in point is the 2018 overhaul of Australian national security and foreign interference laws that added 38 new crimes to the books. They cover, among other things, engaging in covert activity at the behest of a foreign power to influence politics and a ban on foreign political donations.
Then in February 2019, Australia blocked the citizenship application of billionaire Huang Xiangmo, a prominent political donor and former top lobbyist for Beijing, stranding him, possibly for good, outside the country where he had lived with his family for most of a decade.
Observers in both Australia and Canada said these developments constitute a “clear signal” meant to usher in a new, more muscular era for Australian national security in its response to potential threats from foreign actors, including its largest trading partner.
Despite sharp words from Beijing on the new, more hawkish stance, Beijing invited Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne to visit in November 2018, the first time in nearly three years an Australian holding that office had stepped foot on Chinese soil. Likewise, Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne visited China at the end of January 2019, even as reports confirmed that Australian writer Yang Hengjun was being held on suspicion of endangering national security.
An expert in Asian security and international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne said this suggests diplomatic relations between Australia and China are being “reset,” despite significant tensions over the new legislation, Huang’s citizenship, and the imprisoned Australian writer.
“To me it proves that if you’re willing to just maintain your continuity of policy, not give in to pressure and don’t feel you have to buckle because of a perceived risk of economic retaliation, China can accommodate that over time in the relationship,” said Euan Graham, executive director of La Trobe Asia, who is charge of the school’s Asia strategy.
Tensions between Western countries and China should be expected, Graham said, and it’s important to accept that reality as part of the narrative so “we don’t just dress things up in terms of ever-closer friendship and partnership, because that has failed to carry the public with it.”
After extensive redrafting, Australia’s new laws passed with bipartisan support in parliament, suggesting heightened vigilance has become a permanent feature of Australia’s stance toward Beijing and other foreign powers.
“Australia’s experience should be an example for us, not just because it is admirably clear-eyed, but because it shows a degree of self-confidence that we should emulate,” David Mulroney, who was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, wrote in an email.
“China commonly seeks to compel its adversaries to capitulate without a struggle,” said Mulroney, who is now a fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “We shouldn’t be afraid to stick to our principles because we’ll find that, despite its bluster, China is pragmatic and will seek to protect its own considerable interests in the relationship with Canada.”
Conservative MP Peter Kent said both Canada and China have “learned the hard way,” that the Communist Party of China (CCP) will use the country’s economic might to meet its “imperial objectives” by leaning on both Western countries and developing nations.
Kent, who served as a federal minister and international executive co-chair of the China council under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, pointed to “predatory economic policies” in countries like Panama, where China made several major national investments in order to “leverage” the Panamanian government into cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Kent characterized the move as “loansharking to gain influence” in Beijing’s bid to isolate Taiwan — a self-governing, democratic nation which China considers part of its territory — from international support.
“Increasingly, during our years in government, we learned to be much more cautious about an increasingly aggressive, imperialistic, bullying Chinese government,” he said.
Beijing’s growing economic influence signals a shift in “world order,” he added, which demands a change in Ottawa’s approach to engagement with China.
The issue of foreign influence and interference in the Canadian political sphere is another ongoing, slippery problem that successive governments have grappled with, Kent said.
“I hope the Liberal government is finally realizing that China is not like our democratic partners, that China does not recognize the rule of law or a level playing field or treaties or contracts signed, and it is time to rethink, perhaps, that relationship in the way that Australia has.”
But, he cautioned, with tensions between China and Canada escalating, now may not be the time to attempt redress with new legislation, which could be seen as a direct indictment of Beijing by an already-furious Communist Party.
The Dec. 1 arrest in Vancouver by Canadian authorities of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of star Chinese tech giant Huawei, outraged Chinese officials, who have since lobbed accusations of “backstabbing” and “white supremacy” at the Canadian government. In the following weeks, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in China in apparent retaliation for Meng’s arrest, which observers have called “hostage diplomacy.”
Meanwhile, a federal review of the potential security risks posed by Huawei equipment in Canada’s forthcoming 5G infrastructure is underway. Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye has warned of “repercussions” should Canada follow the example of New Zealand, the U.S. and Australia in banning the company from such projects.
But allowing national security to be overshadowed by the quest to appease an increasingly belligerent foreign power is what brought Canada to its current diplomatic impasse to begin with, argued Alex Joske, a researcher working with the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
“This is really something that to some extent the West has brought on itself by tolerating misbehaviour and non-compliance to international agreements and public statements and promises from China for many decades now,” said Joske, an expert in CCP influence, overseas Chinese communities and Chinese military technology.
“Because countries have historically taken this quite simple approach to engagement, where engagement itself was seen as a good, that’s just led to a lot of countries downplaying — or not really looking closely enough at — cases where engagement is actually not contributing to their national interest.”
But Paul Evans, director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, said while he believes some areas of Canadian law need reform to address the challenges that face a modern nation-state, Australia is not the example to follow.
“What I don’t support is the Australian national legislation,” he said, pointing to civil rights groups in the country who argue the new laws could be exploited by Australian officials looking to clamp down on domestic dissent by criminalizing protests or silencing opinions critical of government.
In particular, Evans worries Australia’s legislation risks blurring the line between citizens whose perspectives align with the Chinese government and those actively seeking to undermine the Canadian political process for the benefit of the Communist Party.
“I think (such laws are) unnecessary in Canada, because we have certain antibodies, or antidotes, to Chinese influence activities here that are not perfect, but that generally (work) fairly well.”
He pointed to numerous Chinese-Canadian communities that are finely attuned to identifying local players in organizations that work to realize Communist Party goals globally. They include the United Front, an offshoot of the CCP which works to influence local politics, the Chinese diaspora and foreign elites.
Huang Xiangmo, the Chinese national whose permanent residency was recently revoked in Australia, was chairman of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, which Australian analysts confirmed is “the number one United Front organization within Australia.”
The United Front is likewise active in Canada, according to Charles Burton, an expert on the foreign policies of Western nations toward China.
He said conversations around the limits and potential overreach of a Canadian legislation modelled on the Australian example would be challenging if not arduous.
But, he argued, difficult conversations are necessary given the charged and increasingly perilous nature of global relations, where the balance of economic power is shifting from the U.S. to China.
In the past, Canadian policy has been geared toward securing greater access to the Chinese market to “promote Canadian prosperity and to reduce our dependence on the United States,” said Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad. Meanwhile, the concerns of Canadians over issues such as China’s human rights violations and pugnacious international conduct have been seen as secondary to the pursuit of expanding trade, he added.
The current conflict between countries does suggest that strengthening foreign policy now would not be “politically prudent,” Burton said. But once the Kovrig and Spavor cases are resolved, that would be the time to revise Canada’s plan on how it should engage China.
Australia’s example also provides lessons in terms of how intelligence services can most effectively track, monitor and address foreign interference, said Wesley Wark, a security and intelligence expert who served two terms on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on National Security from 2005 to 2009.
“One of the real problems for Canada is for the last 17, 18 years, we’ve been obsessively focused with the question of terrorism, at home and globally,” he said in an interview.
“And because of that focus, we’ve paid much less attention, given much fewer resources, to dealing with both foreign intelligence on major state actors and foreign interference in terms of intelligence and espionage activities,” said Wark, who is currently director of the Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development at the University of Ottawa.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior manager and senior intelligence officer with CSIS, said competing perspectives on what form new Canadian foreign policy laws should take is exactly the reason legislation is needed.
From a national security perspective, he said the “Achilles heel” of democracy is that governments constantly pursue reelection. Because political winds may shift every several years, policy can be overturned when leaders change.
This is not the case with China.
“The Chinese government is there to stay. This allows them, with the central committee, to plan not only years ahead, but generations ahead … So agents of influence can be planted which will bear fruit only years from now. They have the capability to be patient.”
It’s a competitive advantage that short-sighted Western governments are hard-pressed to address through policy alone, he said.
The value of a law is that it survives regime changes. And while thrashing out new, potentially controversial legislation can take years, it’s a challenge that can — and must — be resolved, said Juneau-Katsuya.
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer