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No more Canada nice: Ottawa gets tough with Beijing

Once upon a time, Canada saw China as Beijing wanted China to be seen — as an essentially benevolent power, one well on its way to becoming fully integrated into the liberal international order, and an aspiring member-in-good-standing of the international community. To be sure, Ottawa’s mandarin class was aware of some of China’s rougher edges, of its human rights deficits and its sometimes-heavy-handed trade diplomacy.

But on the whole, the Canadian equivalent of “the Blob” saw these as little more than speed-bumps on the road to China’s ultimate liberalization and normalization. Few, if any, saw China as a threat to Canada. And most, if not all, looked forward to ever-warmer relations between China and Canada.

That time has now passed.

With the recent release of its new Indo-Pacific Strategy, Ottawa has signaled that the days of Sino-Canadian bonhomie are decisively over. According to the 26-page document released at the end of November, Canada now sees China as “an increasingly disruptive global power” — one increasingly focused on using its growing wealth and power to bend international rules to suit its own interests.

Using some surprisingly blunt language, the strategy says the Canadian government needs to be “clear-eyed” about China’s ambition to become “the leading power in the Indo-Pacific region” and “to shape the international order into a more permissive environment for interests and values that increasingly depart from ours.”

And while it concedes that some cooperation will be “necessary to address some of the world’s existential pressures, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, global health and nuclear proliferation,” its major thrust is unmistakable. Henceforth, the document states, Canada will challenge China “when it engages in coercive behaviour … ignores human rights obligations or undermines our national security interests and those of partners in the region.” In language guaranteed to enrage Beijing, the document also states that “Canada will oppose unilateral actions that threaten the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.”

To back all this up, the strategy document contains a promise to boost engagement in international military exercises and to increase the number of Canadian warships deployed in the region.

What’s behind this sea-change in Canada’s approach to China? What could possibly have pushed the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which came into office in part on a platform of enhancing Canada’s economic ties to China, to adopt such an adversarial posture?

At one level, of course, Canada’s strategic volte face with respect to China can be attributed to recent diplomatic incidents such as Canada’s arrest and extradition to the United States of a senior Chinese telecom executive, and the subsequent imprisonment of two Canadians by China in 2018, as well as by more recent allegations that Beijing has been interfering in Canadian politics.

But as the French historian Fernand Braudel once put it in a very different context, these are mere “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.” Beneath these surface disturbances, the deeper tide that is carrying Canada in this new strategic direction is a logic that is both more structural and more primordial: the logic of geopolitical balancing.

Derived from classical balance-of-power theory, this logic holds that weaker states will take steps to constrain rising powers if they perceive that those rising powers threaten their survival or other core interests. The theory recognizes that some states may choose to bandwagon rather than balance, to throw their lot in with the rising power in the hopes of backing a winner without paying too high a price in terms of its freedom of action.

But it also holds that in most cases states choose to balance rather than bandwagon, if only because it is almost always preferable to be an alliance member with considerable autonomy than a dependency with nearly none. Finally, it recognizes that some states may adopt a “hedging” strategy, one that commits them neither to the rising power nor the balancing coalition and that therefore maximizes their ability to benefit from relations with both.

In this case, of course, the rising power is China, a country that is not only growing more powerful with each passing year, but that is increasingly assertive and belligerent as well. As the logic of balancing predicts, this has resulted in countries as different as Japan, Australia and India all adopting a more adversarial posture toward China — sometimes in conjunction with the United States, sometimes in collaboration with each other and sometimes in cooperation with other states within and beyond the region. It has even resulted in those countries that have traditionally adopted a hedging strategy – the ASEAN member states, for example – moving, albeit tentatively, toward the balancing camp.

And now even Canada, a country that has often fancied itself above the grubby business of geopolitics, has conceded that the tide has turned and moved from hedging to outright balancing — at least rhetorically, if not yet in practical terms.

On closer inspection, then, Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy can be seen to have less to do with the diplomatic contretemps over arrests and extraditions than with the systemic forces unleashed by China’s rise. As an Indo-Pacific country, Canada has simply reacted to China’s growing power and assertiveness in the same way that Japan and Australia have — and it has done so on just about the same timetable as those two countries.

Ottawa could have chosen to ignore those pressures and persisted with the approach it adopted when China was weaker and less ambitious, an approach of nearly unqualified engagement and accommodation. But to its credit, it didn’t. Instead, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau read the geopolitical signals correctly and acted accordingly.

So far, so good. But that may not be the end of the story.

As international theorists from Thucydides to Machiavelli to Morgenthau have reminded us, the realm of international politics is one governed as much by passion as by reason. And therein lies the rub. 

China’s rise ought to result in a carefully calibrated balancing dynamic that blunts China’s more dangerous power plays and nothing more. And that may well be the outcome of the balancing efforts of Canada and other Indo-Pacific countries — a stable international order in which China’s bid for dominance is blunted. But there is a danger inherent in this dynamic, the danger that restrained balancing will spiral into something far less restrained and far less balanced.

Already, the air on both sides of the border is thick with references to “Cold War 2.0,” the “autocracy/democracy divide” and calls to “contain” China. Combine these tropes with an earnest desire to pursue a prudent balancing strategy, and perhaps throw in a dash of moral panic for good measure, and the result could easily be the kind of unrestrained, full-spectrum competition that not only led to massive expenditures of blood and treasure during the Cold War but brought us to the brink of Armageddon on more than one occasion during that “long, twilight struggle.”

That, I would suggest, is an outcome to be avoided. Let’s hope that Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, whatever its other merits and demerits, doesn’t augur such a dangerous escalation, either north or south of the 49th parallel.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy in Ottawa, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags Beijing Canada Canada–China relations China China foreign policy Justin Trudeau Ottawa
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