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Harry Rakowski: Canada can’t be a frog in a world of scorpions

Commentary

The world is a dangerous place with many enemies that would do us physical harm or eat our economic lunch. The war in Ukraine has shown us the importance of having strong alliances with countries that have common political, economic, and social goals and are willing to unite to fight for democracy.

The alliances being formed or augmented are geopolitical, economic, or military and usually reflect the shared goals and values of its members. While alliances are formed by friendly countries to stand up against common enemies, more often now, the enemies of my enemy are banding together as “friends”. It is often a fool’s friendship. Today we see an expansionist Russia courting Iran as a partner in terror. China is trying to dominate the world through economic dependence and growing military might, making it ultimately easier to invade Taiwan. As we try to counter this aggression there are lessons to be learned from our not-too-distant past.

Hitler made a non-aggression pact with Russia in 1939 allowing Stalin to annex half of Poland and a number of Baltic countries. The reprieve was short-lived since Hitler soon attacked Russia, which was always his longer-term plan. It forced Stalin to side with the Western Allies until, at great human cost, the war was won. The Russian friendship of convenience with the Allies was also short-lived as the post-war USSR annexed 15 states in a growing military expansionist threat. These states were part of a growing and powerful Eastern Bloc that grew to include communist and socialist states in Africa, Asia, South America, and Cuba.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was also formed shortly after the end of WWII in response to the growing Soviet threat. Its three proclaimed goals were deterring Soviet expansion, suppressing a revival of European military nationalism, and encouraging European political integration. In 1949 NATO had 12 founding members of the Alliance. This grew to 15 when the Federal Republic of Germany was allowed to join in 1955, ending its status as an occupied country.

With the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, many former satellite Eastern Bloc countries became independent democracies and joined NATO to protect them from future Russian dominance. The current Russian war in Ukraine was meant to constrain NATO’s growing influence and allow Russia to again dominate Ukraine and control its considerable assets. The Russian tactics of terror and indiscriminate civilian attacks have led not just to fierce Ukrainian resistance, but also to the realization that neutrality for many countries was unwise. Now with the most recent addition of Finland, a country with a 1,350-kilometre border with Russia, NATO comprises 31 countries, united in common goals and declaration of mutual military support. Soon Sweden will be the 32nd member.

Canada has played an outsized role in NATO politically, if not financially. In 1956 Lester B. Pearson, our foreign minister and eventual prime minister, was one of the “Three Wise Men” who drafted a report on non-military cooperation in NATO, published in the wake of the Suez Canal Crisis. This heralded NATO’s efforts of peaceful conflict resolution backed by a strong joint military presence.

In the last several decades China has continued to grow economically and militarily, using economic policy rather than military alliances as a way to increase its global influence. It has developed a Belt and Road Initiative, a strategy of economic support with financial investment in more than 150 countries and international organizations. This allows China to have an ever-growing role in global foreign policy, albeit with the risk of an economic stranglehold on many poorer countries, known as “debt-trap diplomacy”.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A friend is a man who has the same enemies you have”. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but often it is not. Currently, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are united in protecting a stable oil supply and combatting Islamic terrorism. However, don’t confuse a friendship of mutual convenience with being a trusted friend. Saudi Arabia remains a monarchy that allows terrorist funding to thrive and whose leader thinks nothing of murdering and dismembering a political critic. As the Kingdom perceives changing U.S. priorities and constantly shifting politics under different presidents, it is trying to forge competing alliances to protect it from Iran, its greatest threat.

As a result, Riyadh, in a deal brokered by China, has resumed diplomatic relations with Iran in an attempt to lessen tensions through diplomacy. The Saudis have also increased relations with China in order to partner with a country that has greater leverage over Iran than the U.S. and to reduce the need for costly military conflict. Iran of course gains by reducing the need for cooperation with Israel, a country it has pledged to destroy and to weaken the effects of international trade sanctions.

The Abraham Accords represented a different path towards greater peace in the Middle East, linking countries at risk from Islamic terrorism. Brokered by the U.S. and signed in 2020, it represented an important normalization and restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and later Morocco. The accord doesn’t imply friendship between the countries but acceptance that greater economic cooperation can lead to political stability.

We need to find ways to use diplomacy and economic accords to find peace and avoid war. We can take reasonable measures to lower tensions and turn down the heat. We do have to remember that the enemies of our enemies are not always our friends, but rather convenient partners…until they are not. Some countries such as Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist organizations have the long-term goal of destroying democracy. Perhaps only regime change can alter their threat.

The fable of the scorpion and the frog is a lesson in not believing the false words of our enemies when they pledge to work together with us. A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, both would sink and drown. The frog agrees, but midway across the river, the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that it is simply its nature.

As we try and make the world a safer place we have to value our true friends and be careful of friends of convenience, who may only be the enemies of our enemies. Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those that do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

We can’t let the glitter of economic ties with China blind us, allowing them to interfere in our elections, passively steal our technology, or militarily bully other countries. We have to continue to thwart Russian aggression by continuing strong support for Ukraine, despite its ongoing cost. Iranian support of terrorism and repression of human rights isn’t something to overlook as we try to reduce tensions. Diplomacy works best when the hand that reaches out is an iron fist in a velvet glove. It shows our enemies and even the enemies of our enemies that while we favour peace, we are prepared to fight with all our resolve for what we believe in.

Sean Speer: The Trudeau government’s response to Chinese interference has proven me wrong

Commentary

The seven days between the Globe and Mail report that a Chinese diplomat in the Toronto consulate had targeted Conservative MP Michael Chong and his family and the Trudeau government’s decision to expel him is bound to have big consequences for Canadian policy and politics, our relationship with China, and broader perceptions of the country’s place in the world.

One certain consequence though is that it has undermined my end-of-year review of 2022 for The Hub. I was prepared to give the Trudeau government the benefit of the doubt that it had undergone something of a genuine change in how it conceptualized China’s increasingly divergent interests and values and the implications for Canadian public policy. I was wrong.

In late December, I argued that the Trudeau government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which articulated a more hawkish approach to Canada’s relationship with China, was the most important policy development of the year because it ended a fifty-year strategy of engagement with a new policymaking paradigm rooted in a clear-eyed view about China’s geopolitical ambitions and national security threats. 

In particular, I wrote: 

The Trudeau government’s commitment to a new, more hawkish policy vis-à-vis China will be tested over time. But its Indo-Pacific Strategy should be viewed, at least in theory, as a major shift in strategy from engagement to a new, more circumscribed, and realist position. 

It thinks and talks about Canada’s relationship with China in a way that we haven’t seen in decades. At its core, [the Indo-Pacific Strategy] is an expression of Ottawa’s growing recognition that China is fundamentally a geopolitical and technology rival and possibly an outright enemy. 

My main point was that while the Trudeau government had been slower than most to recognize that Canada’s strategy towards China needed to change, the Indo-Pacific Strategy seemed to represent a “significant policy shift” with far-reaching implications. It exhibited a different mindset and reflected firmer language—including calling China an “increasingly disruptive global power…[that] engages in coercive behaviour”—than we had seen since Prime Minister Trudeau’s father had set in motion Canada’s strategy of engagement more than five decades earlier.

The outstanding question of course was: would his government stay committed to its self-characterized “evolving approach” to China when tested? 

The first test has now come in the form of the Chinese interference story in general and compelling evidence that Zhao Wei, a Chinese official in the Toronto consulate, targeted MP Chong and his family in particular. 

The Trudeau government has abjectly failed the test. Its delayed response has exposed a huge gap between the Indo-Pacific Strategy’s hawkish insights and the government’s own dovish disposition when it comes to Canada’s relationship with China. 

It now seems apparent that the strategy wasn’t a major policy development at all but rather a rhetorical smokescreen to obscure the Trudeau government’s ongoing unwillingness to actually change course on China.

The best (or worst) example was the Trudeau government’s open equivocation last week on whether to expel the so-called “diplomat” who targeted MP Chong and his family. Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly told Chong and his parliamentary colleagues that the government was “assessing the consequences” that might result from diplomatic expulsion, including to the country’s economic interests. Prime Minister Trudeau similarly explained over the weekend that his government needed to make such a decision “very, very carefully” to account for such consequences. 

The explicit implication was that Ottawa must choose between sanctioning active threats to Canadian democracy from foreign governments or supporting the country’s trade and investment flows. It’s rather extraordinary to have Canada’s foreign affairs minister openly speculate in Parliament about how much Chinese interference we might have to live with in exchange for cheap manufactured goods. There are various ways to describe such a statement: “realistic” and “clear-eyed” aren’t the first words that come to mind. 

The consequences of these developments won’t just embolden China and other hostile actors as Chong has warned. They’ll also renew doubts that the Trudeau government is serious about the evolving geopolitical context and in turn further isolate Canada from its allies. It’s not an accident that we’ve been excluded to date from the 14-country Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or the AUKUS defence agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

The government’s slow response to the Chinese interference scandal is unlikely to bolster our petitions for inclusion in these initiatives or any others aimed to counter China’s growing aggression. Allied governments are bound to continue to rightly view Canadian policy as weak and confused. Actions ultimately speak louder than words. 

Which brings me to my mea culpa. In hindsight, I overestimated the Trudeau government’s words. They were back up by enough early policy steps, including new guidelines for research partnerships with Chinese scholars and universities and the mandated divestment by Chinese companies of certain Canadian mining assets, that it was possible to misjudge them in the moment as more substantial than they’ve proven to be.

But this recent episode has demonstrated that the Trudeau government hasn’t really changed its views about China much at all. This is still the same government that signed a COVID-19 vaccine deal in May 2020 with Beijing even though the two Michaels remained unlawfully detained and there was growing evidence that Chinese lies and obfuscation had contributed to the global pandemic. The prime minister and his Cabinet’s predisposition to China seems impervious to facts—or Canada’s interests, for that matter.

I have learned my lesson. I suspect that the Chinese have too. We’ll doubtless see some sort of reaction to Zhao’s expulsion. It might even be significant. But the Trudeau government’s evident apprehension to act is itself a win for China’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy.” It has signaled that Canadian policymaking has internalized the economic and geopolitical asymmetries between the two countries. Joly’s bizarre parliamentary testimony conceded as much.

What Canada needs is a government that can translate the words of the Indo-Pacific Strategy into policymaking action. The evidence of the past seven days is that we’ll need a new government to do that.