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Here’s what to expect if China economically retaliates against Canada


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that he expects further retaliation from the Chinese government after expelling the diplomat responsible for an intimidation campaign against an MP’s family, but said that could be the cost of sending a message to the international community. 

“We decided we needed to move forward in a responsible way to send a very clear message that we will not accept foreign interference and, regardless of whatever next choices they make, we will not be intimidated,” Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, the Globe & Mail reported that Zhao Wei, a Chinese diplomat working in Toronto, had helped orchestrate an intimidation campaign in Hong Kong against relatives of Conservative MP Michael Chong.

On Monday, the government announced Zhao had been declared “persona non grata,” a term used to indicate a foreign diplomat is being expelled. Within hours, Canadian diplomat Jennifer Lynn Lalonde was expelled from the Consulate General of Canada in Shanghai.

Both Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly have suggested they expect further economic retaliation in the growing diplomatic spat.

Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, said any potential targeting of Canadian exports is unlikely to be portrayed as explicitly connected to the expulsion of Zhao. 

“They don’t link it, they don’t say ‘we’re going to cut back your imports into China because they don’t like this,’ they virtually never do that, it just happens,” said Houlden. 

In 2019 following the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, which enraged China, Canadian canola producers exporting their products to China reported that clearing Chinese customs and permitting had become far slower.  

While the value of the exports recovered to $1.8 billion in 2021, the Canola Council of Canada estimated the industry lost up to $2.35 billion in sales between 2019 and 2020.

Other Canadian materials like iron ore exports to China, worth $2.7 billion in 2022, may be targeted, as could other sectors, said Karen Woods, co-founder of the Canadian Chinese Political Affairs Committee

Charles Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, said the Canadian government had no choice but to expel Zhao. He said Canada’s attitude towards tolerating intimidation of Chinese Canadians has changed since Trudeau became prime minister in 2015 with an agenda to expand economic ties with China. 

“In the past, we felt that this was an acceptable cost to ensure that [China] would not impose restrictions on Canada’s access to China’s enormous market,” said Burton. “I think that moment has passed and the economic justification for appeasing China’s violations of the norms of the international rules-based order is definitely over.” 

Burton said CSIS probably has a long list of agents working on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security that could also be considered for expulsion. 

“They are engaged in activities which violate their diplomatic status under the terms of the Vienna Convention,” said Burton.  

Canada has expelled diplomats in the past, such as the expulsion of an Eritrean diplomat in 2013 for illegally soliciting money from the Eritrean diaspora. Woods, however, said taking the same course of action against Chinese diplomats is far more consequential. 

“China is a superpower and Canada’s second largest trading partner while Eritrea is not,” said Woods. “Just think about the amount of hardship and difficulties China put our farmers through between 2019 and 2021 following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou.” 

Zhao’s expulsion has been preceded by a downturn in Canada-China relations, including the Meng Wanzhou affair that resulted in two Canadians in China being taken hostage for nearly three years, and the rise of “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, an aggressive manner of conducting foreign relations, from Chinese diplomats around the world in response to perceived affronts. 

“China can also place restrictions on tourists and international students,” said Woods. “China probably has more tools in its toolset to hurt Canada than the Trudeau government is willing to admit.” 

In 2020, Chinese international students spent roughly $4 billion in Canada on tuition and other contributions to the economy, and many Canadian public universities are reliant on the expensive tuition fees paid by foreign students. Chinese tourists visiting Canada also generated $1.8 billion in 2019.  

Despite likely retaliatory measures, Burton said the Chinese government will have more respect for Canada if it stands up for its principles. 

The first step for Canada in fighting foreign interference? Defining what it is


Canada doesn’t have a legal definition for foreign interference, pushing the authorities to find other crimes committed by malign foreign actors if they want to prosecute them, a national security expert said in the wake of a week-long controversy about an alleged campaign by the Chinese government to intimidate a Canadian MP.

Conservative MP Michael Chong confirmed this week that Canada’s intelligence services believe his family in Hong Kong was the target of an intimidation campaign after he sponsored a motion declaring that China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region constitutes genocide.

The revelation sparked a week of confusion in Ottawa, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially vowing to get to the bottom of it, and then blaming the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for not flagging this information for the government. By Thursday, Chong said the government admitted to him that the intelligence document about the alleged intimidation campaign had made its way to several ministries and the Privy Council Office.

National security experts say Canada is lagging behind its allies in its capacity to discover and deter these kinds of foreign interference activities.

“Canada needs to do what the Australians did and establish what constitutes foreign interference. The problem right now for investigations is without a clear definition of the thresholds, they need to find other transgressions that are actually illegal,” said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

“The threshold right now for an investigation is very high,” said Leuprecht.

Without it being delineated in law, there can be uncertainty within the intelligence agencies about their ability to act.

“We have nothing in legislation that would actually define at which point agencies are authorised to step in,” said Leuprecht.

Since it was revealed in a Globe and Mail news story on Monday, the alleged intimidation of Chong’s extended family in Hong Kong has dominated debate in the House of Commons. It culminated on Thursday when Chong led question period for the Conservatives and revealed that Jody Thomas, the national security advisor to the prime minister, revealed to him that the 2021 intelligence report about his family had been widely disseminated in the government, contradicting Trudeau’s comments from a day earlier.

On Monday, the Conservatives will reveal an opposition motion calling on the government to create a foreign agents registry similar to the one in Australia. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre will also call on the government to launch a public inquiry on foreign interference in Canada’s election, close down two police stations in Canada run by the Chinese government, and expel any diplomats involved in any of these activities.

Leuprecht said that Canada can learn a few things from Australia, especially when it comes to letting CSIS be proactive in stopping these interference campaigns. In a situation where a hostile foreign government is trying to fund a certain candidate, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service has a mandate to act.

“ASIS regularly uses its disruption measures. So it would, for instance, have an opportunity to disrupt the flow of those funds, seize bank accounts, stop the flow of money, whatever it may be. There are no such authorities in Canada. So CSIS can watch and report, but there’s nothing it can do about it,” said Leuprecht.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said he will begin public consultations on a foreign agent registry soon and his department published a whitepaper earlier in the year exploring the idea.

The Australian example, which has been widely touted by the Conservative Party and national security experts as a model, has been getting mixed reviews lately, with even some of its early proponents saying it has some major flaws.

Malcolm Turnbull, who was Australian prime minister when the registry was launched, said the registry is simultaneously hoovering up information “of marginal utility” while missing some fairly obvious interference from the Chinese government.

“A lot of the information and relationships being reported are so benign as to be barely worth doing,” said Turnbull, earlier this year, to an Australian parliamentary committee examining the registry.

“Yet if you believe the register, there is not one representative of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department operating in Australia. That defies credulity,” said Turnbull.

A recent policy paper by Daniel Ward, an Australian lawyer who has advised two prime ministers on the issue, said the main issue with the registry is that “it treats all foreign influence efforts in the same way, regardless of their source country.”

Ward recommends sorting countries into tiers and applying more or less scrutiny and regulations based on their track record.

“Designation would be based primarily upon an assessment of the foreign state’s political system—in particular, the degree to which the foreign government controls ostensibly ‘private’ entities and deploys them to advance its national security goals,” writes Ward.

Clare O’Neil, the minister for home affairs in Australia, said in a speech earlier this year that diaspora communities are desperate for government support to combat these interference campaigns.

Only with supporting Australian citizens, the best way to deter these campaigns is to reveal them and “out” countries that are engaging them, she said.

“We don’t want to just disrupt these operations, but we want to deter future ones by imposing costs on their sponsors by outing them, where it is possible to do so,” said O’Neil.