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COMMENTARY: Canada needs to plan ways to meet China’s military challenge

WATCH: The creators of satirical animated series "South Park" issued a mocking "apology" to China, following media reports that episodes of the show were no longer available on some Chinese websites.

Forget for a moment Canada’s grave dispute with China over the extradition proceedings in Vancouver involving a Huawei executive. As the New York Times reminded readers last week, China has even gone after that most Canadian of bears, Winnie the Pooh.

The orphaned bear cub from White River, Ont., a First World War vet of sorts and an honourary member of the Winnipeg-based Fort Garry Horse — hence Winnie — has been banned from television and the internet by Communist China’s ridiculously sensitive and self-centred government, because of suggestions that the chubby, Canadian-born mascot and international media sensation resembles Beijing’s strongman Xi Jinping.

READ MORE: ‘South Park’ banned in China after mocking Chinese government censors

As was demonstrated last week when the Communist regime went nuts after a pro-Hong Kong tweet by a team general manager, this is China today. How to deal with China’s caprices, tantrums and the military challenge it already poses in the western Pacific is a conundrum not only for Canada, but for many other countries.

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China’s shocking kidnapping of two Canadians in response to the extradition hearing of Meng Wanzhou and an outrageous accusation by the Chinese ambassador that Canada was guilty of “egotism and white supremacy” for not releasing her may have finally put the Chinese dictatorship on the radar of sleepy Canadians.

Given how dependent Canada is in trade on the high seas and that most of its trade growth is and will be in Asia, Canadians should have begun paying close attention to Beijing after it announced about five years ago that it intended to ignore the claims of half a dozen Asian nations and steal the entire South China Sea and a good chunk of the East China Sea.

Leaders’ Debate: Singh and Scheer attack Trudeau’s handling of Canadians being held in China
Leaders’ Debate: Singh and Scheer attack Trudeau’s handling of Canadians being held in China

It has been said for decades that Canadians do not care about foreign or security policy. That surely explains why, for example, there has been no serious discussion during the current election campaign of the country’s strategic priorities and military spending — though at about $21 billion a year, this is by far the biggest annual bill produced by any government department.

Yet that could finally be changing. China’s economic and military rise is something that candidates and campaign workers have told me voters have raised with them when they have been out canvassing.

COMMENTARY: China does not have to be Canada’s only partner in Asia

I argued in this space last week that it made economic and strategic sense for Ottawa to greatly broaden its approach to Asia by expanding trade with other nations in the region, such as Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. No leader has seriously discussed ways Canada might deal with China during the past few weeks — Canada has security as well as economic options that are worth considering. But to do anything in that sphere will first require discussion by the political echelon and Canadians about what kind of force is required to defend Canada in the 21st century and, crucially, how to pay for it.

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And that conversation, which must inevitably also touch on cyber warfare, information warfare and space warfare, as well as how Canada will have to pay for its own security because the U.S. either no longer wants to or is capable of doing so, has certainly not begun in any way during the current election campaign.

For starters, Canada could consider joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also called the Quad. It’s a recently-reinvigorated Five Eyes-style intelligence group involving India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. Its remit is to watch over the entire Indo-Pacific, which includes sea lanes that are vital to Canada’s economic prosperity.

READ MORE: Canadian warship sails through controversial Taiwan Strait

In the same vein, the Canadian Armed Forces is creating a cyber battalion. But the threat there is so great and constant that a much bigger unit such as a brigade may be required with the force’s focus equally split between Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Urgent consideration should also be given to seriously re-balancing the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force to put more assets and personnel in western Canada. Though there might be institutional resistance because many of the RCN’s officers and sailors are from the Maritimes, the next government should consider taking two Halifax-based frigates and putting them on the West Coast.

As the extra warships and the basing of a supply ship on the Pacific are unlikely to easily fit into the already-crowded small harbour at CFB Esquimalt, it might be prudent to open a new base further north on Vancouver Island or in the ports of Prince Rupert and Kitimat, where a $40-billion LNG terminal may be built.

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Sending two frigates west to join the five that are already there would still allow the RCN to meet its NATO obligations to provide a persistent naval combat presence in the North Atlantic. By having more of its ships based on the West Coast, Canada would, for the first time, be able to maintain a permanent naval combat presence in the western Pacific. Because of the need to maintain the RCN’s 30-year-old warships and train their crews, the navy today can only be in the western Pacific about eight months a year.

READ MORE: Canadian warships buzzed by Chinese fighter jets in international waters

China intends to soon have a far-ranging blue water navy that includes not only assault ships and hundreds of destroyers, but many dozens of submarines.

As Canada needs to protect shipping lanes in conjunction with its allies, the RCN may have to purchase submarines, as the Conservatives have suggested. But Canadians would have to be warned and educated about the fact that acquiring new subs would cost many tens of billions of dollars and make current angst over the cost of new fighter jets and surface warships look like peanuts.

It also makes sense to base a squadron of whatever new fighter jet Canada buys at CFB Comox. This would not be that difficult as the base already has the infrastructure to handle CF-18s, which frequently rotate through CFB Comox to maintain an alert capability on the West Coast.

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This may sound like pie-in-the-sky stuff; some of it probably is. Certainly, the costs would be far higher than any Canadian politician has dared mention since the Second World War.

But Canadians must better understand that China poses a great security challenge as well as a business opportunity. Simply throwing in the towel when China takes Canadians hostage is not good enough.

It would behoove Canadians to remember China’s banishment of that quintessentially genial and bland Canadian, Winnie the Pooh. In its own curious way, that sad affair says a lot about what Canada faces when dealing with the emerging superpower across the water.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas