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Mark Johnson: Let’s stop the talk about war with China

Commentary

Almost every day brings an ominous news article about China and its relationship with Canada and its allies. Usually framed as a confrontation between a democratic, rights-respecting West and China as an authoritarian human rights abuser and destabilizer of world order, the relationship appears to be on a one-way downward track, beset by hostility and mistrust, with a looming, perhaps inevitable military conflict at its conclusion. The current political discourse and media coverage are almost exclusively focused on the dangers of a newly rising China. 

Both sides have far too much to lose if this belligerent tone continues. Canada has much to gain if we take prudent steps to protect our interests yet leverage the benefits of the relationship. With 1.4 billion people, China presents Canada with enormous opportunities but also acute problems; we should not let one blind us to the other. Both sides need to pull back, look at the larger, long-term picture, stop the sabre-rattling and war talk, and build a constructive way forward. 

The negative tone is not confined to Canada. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, called “The China Trap”, Prof. Jessica Chen Weiss lamented:

Competition with China has begun to consume U.S. foreign policy. Seized with the challenge of a near-peer rival whose interests and values diverge sharply from those of the United States, U.S. politicians and policymakers are becoming so focused on countering China that they risk losing sight of the affirmative interests and values that should underpin U.S. strategy. The current course will…bring indefinite deterioration of the U.S.-Chinese relationship and a growing danger of catastrophic conflict…

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote of the rising tensions in the China-West relationship: “The two sides need to absorb the history of the decade before World War I, when the gradual emergence of an atmosphere of suspicion and latent confrontation escalated into catastrophe.” 

Things with China have not gone the way Canada and the West wanted. Under President Xi, the Chinese government has grown more authoritarian at home, constructed an oppressive surveillance state, eradicated democracy in Hong Kong, committed atrocities against the Uyghurs and Falun Gong, militarized the South China Sea, kidnapped two Canadians, and engaged in massive industrial espionage against the West. We also learned that, according to a CSIS report, operatives of the Chinese government interfered in our 2019 election. The Chinese government has reportedly opened three secret police outposts in Toronto to surveil and pressure Chinese dissidents and fugitives to return home. (Disclosure: One such station is allegedly in the riding of Scarborough-Agincourt where I ran for Parliament in 2021.) 

There’s no question that Canada must stand four square and take tough countermeasures against this behaviour. If there are Chinese agents engaged in espionage or other misconduct on our soil, then our police and intelligence agencies must act forcefully. At the same time, we can be realistic and look at the relationship in its entirety. 

Too big to fail

China is our second-largest trading partner. We are deeply linked in business and trade, immigration, law enforcement, cultural and family ties, and tourism. Our business links run the gamut from small, local businesses in every neighbourhood that import goods from China to the Chinese being massive consumers of our mining and agricultural products. 

General Motors sells more cars in China than it does in America. China is the second largest customer of Ford. Let that sink in. It’s the country where much of our consumer goods are produced. Will we truly go to war with our second-largest trading partner, GM’s largest customer, and a major customer for our agricultural and natural resources sectors? We’d be shutting down our own economy. Looking at the economic disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—any conflict with China would cause a global economic calamity that is exponentially larger.

Equally important, China and the West must collaborate to combat climate change, manage the North Korea issue, and respond to global pandemics.

Simply put, this harsh reality requires that the Canada-China relationship not only work but work well. Framing it as a zero-sum game, an inevitable conflict, or a looming war is detrimental to both sides. 

Anti-Asian bigotry: Words hurt

The drumbeat of confrontation and suspicion by officialdom may also contribute to anti-Asian bigotry in Canada. About 1.8 million Canadians, or five percent of the population, are of Chinese ancestry, whose original ethnic homeland, generally speaking, is China. No one needs to be reminded of their contribution to this country. Like most immigrants, they are immensely proud of their ancient culture. Opinion leaders constantly portraying the homeland of a visible ethnic group in a harsh light, even with disclaimers and qualifiers, risk having their words being twisted and exploited by the unscrupulous and unhinged among us. When politicians and other leaders stoke fears of a fifth column in our midst from China, that Canada is rife with Chinese spies and agents in its universities, businesses, and governments, then we cannot be surprised when innocent Chinese Canadians fall under suspicion and become the victims of anti-Asian bigotry. They don’t deserve this. 

To be clear, this does not mean that domestic diaspora politics should influence our foreign policy. What it does mean is that political leaders must choose their words and pick their issues so as not to cause harm to their own citizens. All Canadian leaders must tread carefully. 

A two-track approach

Canada need not abandon the moral principles of its foreign policy. Canadians as a people are both moral and practical; therefore, our foreign policy must be moral yet practical. The challenge for Canada and other Western nations lies in having a mutually constructive, multi-faceted relationship with a regime that is increasingly authoritarian. 

We can take the long view–promote closer business and trade relationships that are mutually beneficial but confront them with well-calibrated measures in coordination with our allies to deter their abuses and coercive actions.

China is not the new Soviet Union. It is a capitalist economy, our second-largest trading partner, and it does not wish to lead a worldwide ideological revolution as the Soviet Union did. In the grand scheme of things, China is not a threat to our system or way of life. 

We need to get off this spiraling war rhetoric. At the G20 summit in Indonesia, President Xi and President Biden met in person and wisely expressed a desire to right the ship and improve communications and cooperation for the benefit of both sides. Time will tell if they can make an effective course correction.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.” Nothing could be truer about our relationship with China.

Jerry Amernic: Comrades in arms: The Russia of yesterday and today

Commentary

I don’t know what happened to them and am afraid to ask. But many years ago, during the Afghanistan war, and we’re talking the 1980s here, a group of Red Army soldiers did the unthinkable and deserted and some joined the enemy—the Mujahideen—to take up arms against their former comrades. Five of them would later be smuggled into Canada by way of Pakistan. I thought this would make a good book and got to know them. The book never happened but it’s weird how the mind works.

You see it was around this time when my wife and I got an egg slicer, a little device with narrow wires that tears through hard-boiled eggs in an instant. Slicing eggs and cleaning this contraption and the remains afterward always made me think about something one of those guys told me. How his crazed Red Army platoon commander took prisoners, tied them up, and laid them across the road. Then he had infantry vehicles called BMP carriers—tanks—drive over them and rip their bodies to shreds. This soldier saw it all with his own eyes. Then he was told to clean up the mess and when doing that had to scour the tank treads for bits of human flesh. For whatever the reason his story always came back to haunt me with the egg slicer.

This was grisly stuff, but everything they told me about the Red Army and how it operated in Afghanistan tended to be grisly. Now, as I watch nightly news reports about how the Red Army has been conducting itself in Ukraine these past eight months, I have the distinct impression little has changed.

That soldier, trained as a sharpshooter, was drafted into the Red Army at 19 and told he’d be fighting American and Chinese mercenaries when he got to Afghanistan, which sounds like present-day Red Army recruits who arrive in Ukraine and look for Nazis. The very day that he left home he saw a coffin being unloaded from a truck down the street. The body of a neighbour, age 21, was coming home after a training accident in East Germany. Not in combat. Training. Apparently, these things were commonplace.

So what was it like being a member of the Red Army during that war? Based on the extensive interviews I did with this group—all of them young and friendly—it’s not much different from what transpires today.

In this file photo taken April 2, 1989, an Afghan guerrilla stands on top of one of the Soviet-made army tanks captured near Jalalabad, in Afghanistan. Joe Gaal, AP Photo.

The sharpshooter did just under two years of service, with no leave; the officers and KGB monitoring everything to make sure the men kept their noses clean. He said in the Red Army firing squads could be employed for those who don’t toe the line. When training was completed they were ordered to attack Afghan villages and kill everything—enemy combatants, women, children, old people, as well as dogs, cats, goats, and sheep. He once confided to me just how many people he figured he killed over his stint in Afghanistan.

It is not a pretty number.

They all spoke about discrimination against rookies and vicious in-fighting between ethnic groups. They told me chemical agents like trichothecene mycotoxins which are deadly compounds produced by molds were used in Afghanistan as early as 1980. The Soviet Union always denied this. Such agents cause blistering, vomiting, dysentery, and ultimately death. They also said alcoholism was rampant in the military with heavy use of marijuana and hashish, never mind heroin and opium. Remember, this was Afghanistan where the opium poppy grew like a weed.

Soldiers suffered from hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, and malaria, but despite it all, they had to write “happy” letters home knowing full well that their outgoing mail was inspected. Some tried to kill themselves.

One of them was a driver and mechanic who occasionally had to search for mines. Dangerous work to be sure. Then there was the demolitions expert. Eventually, five were smuggled to Canada. There was a press conference and the story went, as we now say, viral. They were feted at the House of Commons in Ottawa and soon two of them made a trip to Washington to address a commission and relate their experiences about Afghanistan.

When he was younger the sharpshooter wanted to be a pilot. It didn’t happen. His life, and the lives of his comrades, got sidetracked because of Afghanistan and their being drafted into the Red Army. The last I heard he had a family of his own and was living in suburbia. I go through the notes I kept and read his comments.

“I like it here. It’s a great country but you have to work hard.”

On the other hand, he also said life in Canada was easy. As for returning to Russia, that was out of the question.

“To go back and see the mothers of all my friends who died in Afghanistan? I don’t want to go.”

One of them wound up in Boston while two others got married and divorced. Still, this was many years ago and I don’t know what has happened since. But the war continues in Ukraine and the world holds its breath.

I know a few Russians and Russian speakers from my work, all of them professional people. One of them, an accountant, told me how World War II is taught there with no mention of Normandy, D-Day, or the Western Allies. Everything starts in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Russia and we can all thank the Red Army and the Red Army alone for Hitler’s defeat. I was also talking to a lawyer shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine and asked about it.

“It would be like Washington bombing Toronto,” the lawyer said.

I have a friend, not Russian, who leans quite far to the Right. When we talked he said he didn’t like Putin but that he has a point about NATO encroaching on Russia. And so there is a very big security concern on the part of the Kremlin, which he apparently understands.

But I don’t share that view. You can call it Russia or the Soviet Union, it’s the same mentality that invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Crimea albeit Ukraine in 2014, and all of Ukraine this year. And that’s only a partial list. Why the invasions? Pure and simple it’s the fear of liberal democracy, on the part of a criminal organization masquerading as a government, in a country that has never known it.

Yes, I realize we have problems of our own. Just read some of my earlier pieces for The Hub. But I don’t see how a rational mind can have any defence for Putin who advocates the absolute worst form of tribalism.

Ultra-nationalism.

In history, we have seen it before and it never turns out well. Which is why Putin is Yesterday’s Man and the sooner he is gone the better.