News Dispatch

Canada, playing catch-up, enters its own ‘decisive decade’ with China

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in Bangkok, Thailand on Nov. 18, 2022. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

At a Glance

  • Canadian allies in the region have been generally pleased with Canada’s plan and some international experts have lauded the new tone.
  • The plan promises $2.3 billion over five years in an attempt to build relationships in the region by expanding trade and boosting Canada’s military capacity.
  • “The strategy has come too late and Canada is playing catch up to its closest democratic allies,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong.

The new Indo-Pacific strategy unveiled by the Liberal government on Sunday, featuring harsher language and blunt criticisms of China, could mark a new era for Canada’s presence in the region after years of being “basically irrelevant,” experts say.

“Especially on the China front, people are impressed that Canada went as far as it went on this,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, the director of the Indo-Pacific program and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

“Going into this, I think that we’ve been really slow, not just on China, but more broadly, in the region. We haven’t been serious and it’s left us to be seen as basically irrelevant to a lot of these countries in the region,” said Miller.

Miller cautioned that a strategy is only as good as the implementation of it, and said he’ll be watching carefully for how the government rolls it out. But in early conversations with Canadian allies in the region, Miller said people have been generally pleased with Canada’s plan and some international experts have lauded the new tone in the strategy, which dubbed China a “disruptive” force.

“Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy represents an important step forward. It begins to bring Ottawa’s policies into line with the increasingly evident reality that China is an exceptionally powerful, ambitious, and aggressive state that needs to be dealt with as it is, not as we might wish it to be. This means dispensing with the optimistic policies of the past,” said Elbridge Colby, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, in an interview with The Hub on Monday.

“Canada’s shift is therefore important. But it is unlikely to be the end of the story as we enter what the Biden Administration itself calls ‘a decisive decade’ with China,” said Colby.

The strategy promises $2.3 billion over five years in an attempt to build relationships in the region by expanding trade and boosting Canada’s military capacity. The plan follows an increasingly hard-line on China from U.S. President Joe Biden, who has overseen several diplomatic skirmishes with China since taking office. Last month, Biden announced a sweeping expansion of its export controls on semiconductor chips to China, an escalation in a long-simmering competition between the two countries.

In August, U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the most senior U.S. politician to visit Taiwan in 25 years and declared that the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan, sparking a furious response from China.

Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a long bilateral meeting at last month’s G20 summit in an attempt to clear the air, but some experts think the two countries are inevitably diverging, with allies following.

“Every country in the world is increasingly being forced to choose sides. And it’s a sad reality of the world that we live in today,” Isaac Stone Fish, a scholar and former Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, in an interview earlier this year with The Hub.

“Canada gains little from acting as a wedge issue between the United States and China or figuring out where it can work with China that the United States can’t,” he said.

The government’s Indo-Pacific plan has been years in the making, even while Beijing detained two Canadian citizens in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, sparking a nearly three-year diplomatic crisis.

“The strategy has come too late and Canada is playing catch up to its closest democratic allies,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong, who is the party’s foreign affairs critic.

“This was an announcement of a strategy and what will be critical for the government is implementing the strategy. This is a government that has not been good at implementation. They’ve been great at announcements but weak on implementation, and there’s a whole range of files where you can point to this,” said Chong.

The plan also includes funding for items like business grants and visa processing, a sign that Canada is interested in building allies around China in the region.

“I think Canada clearly understands that we alone are too small to have any impact. So there is greater coordination with allies, firstly in the Indo-Pacific region, and the United States is a Pacific country just as we are,” said Janice Stein, from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

The document should be read as a serious effort to engage with the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, rather than just a China strategy, said Stein.

“These partners make it clear repeatedly in the statements that they make, that they don’t want to be forced to choose between the United States and China, but they too have security concerns,” said Stein.

“They have concerns about the way China is behaving in their neighbourhood. So the more governments can do two things at the same time, the broader support that will be and that’s what the strategy really expresses,” said Stein.

David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China, wrote on Twitter that Canadians shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that China has been accused of forming an “interference network” during the 2019 election.

“They do want us to believe that our focus should be out there in the Indo-Pacific, rather than back here in Canada. They’ve no plan to combat increasingly sophisticated Chinese interference. Just the desire to get it out of the headlines,” wrote Mulroney.

Mulroney said that without a concrete plan to look into this kind of interference in our democratic institutions, the plan can’t be taken seriously.

“In a few weeks, if not days, Canada’s Indo-Pacific ‘strategy,’ a grab-bag of expenditures looking for a purpose, will be forgotten. No big deal. But we can’t afford to forget an interference campaign so blatant the PRC no longer even tries to hide it,” he wrote.

With files from Geoff Russ

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