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COMMENTARY: Why did Canada send a team to the Military World Games in China?

WATCH: Matthew Fisher, a veteran international affairs columnist describes the threats Canada and the world faces from Russia and China. ‘These are real challenges for Canada.’

What was Canada doing sending 171 Canadian soldiers to China to participate in a military sports competition last week?

It was nearly one year ago that Beijing kidnapped two Canadian citizens. It still holds them hostage as leverage in its dispute with Ottawa over the detention of a Huawei executive who awaits a hearing to decide if she should be extradited to the U.S. to face criminal charges there.

Was the trip to China a colossal error of judgment by the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces? Or were DND and the CAF acting on orders from Global Affairs Canada and/or the prime minister’s inner circle?

Although the Government of Canada website warns Canadians travelling to China to “exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws,” it has said almost nothing about why it ignored its own advice and chose to send an airplane full of Canadians to such a risky place. It only acknowledged that the trip, which it apparently wanted to keep secret, had actually taken place after it was revealed by the Globe and Mail’s ace reporting team of Steve Chase and Bob Fife.

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Given how keen Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Global Affairs have been to restore their shattered ties with China, and that the Canadian Forces do not have a dog in that hunt, readers should be able to figure out for themselves who it was that decided it would be a good idea to send so many Canadians halfway around the world, at a time when relations between the two countries have never been worse since diplomatic relations were established 49 years ago.

It is likely that the government did not want news of this odyssey getting out, given that the event began during the last week of the election campaign.

It’s hardly the first time that Global Affairs has told the military to do its bidding, nor is it necessarily wrong to do so. There is no reason why the military, which is highly respected overseas, cannot be used to help further Canada’s foreign policy aims. What is wrong is when the military is forced to publicly defend bad decisions it did not make and which were seriously misguided, so that another department or the political echelon can skate free of criticism or scrutiny.
Another recent example of this was when Global Affairs botched Canada’s long delayed peacekeeping mission to Mali. It first did so by dithering for years about where to go and what to do. The long delay occurred after the prime minister stated that a return to blue beret and blue helmet missions was a high priority for this government.
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The arrangement that Ottawa eventually negotiated with the United Nations was such that despite deploying a world class helicopter medevac capability, the Canadians were only called on 11 times to extract wounded troops. A mission that cost millions of dollars to prepare and deploy ended up doing very little except train in the desert before being yanked back home after 13 months.

The troops, who had been eager for the assignment in Africa and were brilliantly equipped, were not amused. Taxpayers should have not have been, either.

Exclusive: Inside the lives of Canadian peacekeepers in Mali
Exclusive: Inside the lives of Canadian peacekeepers in Mali

Worse than the actual decision to participate in the Military World Games, China’s embassy shamelessly used the trip and the soldiers who were on it for propaganda purposes. The embassy concluded on its website that countries which had sent athletes to the games such as Canada “commend China’s foreign policy and development path. China’s friends are all over the world. This is a fact that can neither be obliterated nor changed by some people’s groundless accusations.”

Those “groundless accusations” clearly relate to the Communist dictatorship’s attempt to get Canada to agree to some sort of spy swap-like exchange of the two Canadians it has kidnapped in return for Meng Wanzhou. Meng’s father, Ren Zhengfei, owns Huawei, with the rest of the communications conglomerate belonging to a trade union that is, effectively, part of the Chinese government.

READ MORE: Meng’s lawyers say RCMP shared phone details with FBI, despite affidavits

A complicating factor is a side dispute over whether Canada will allow Huawei’s 5G cell technology into Canada, despite widespread suspicions in the West that it could be used for espionage.

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Ren’s daughter, Meng, is living in a gilded cage at one of her two multi-million dollar homes in Vancouver and is free to go shopping and eat out, while a court decides whether she should be extradited to the U.S., where charges of bank fraud and theft of intellectual property await her. The Canadians who have been arrested in China — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — are being held in austere conditions in a prison with little access to lawyers or the outside world.
It’s easy to see why China might think that Canada is a pushover. The few Mandarins in Beijing who follow Canada will have noted that Trudeau declared his “admiration” for China’s “basic dictatorship” in 2013.
Hosting international sports competitions is one of the ways that China shows its own people and tries to show the world how beloved it is. It’s why China’s strongman, Xi Jinping, attended the opening ceremonies of the Military Games, which were preceded by an Olympic-style torch relay, and why the quadrennial competition, which has never been followed closely anywhere else it has been held, received prominent national media coverage there.
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What the Chinese diplomats in Ottawa failed to mention in their boastful declaration about Canada’s admiration of China was that the People’s Liberation Army orienteering team was kicked out of last week’s games for cheating.
Four Chinese athletes, including a gold medalist, were caught getting help from spectators and taking illegal short cuts to try to hasten their path to glory in a sport that depends on running fast while reading maps and figuring out the right direction with a compass. Curiously, their ignominious expulsion from the competition for “extensive cheating,” which had been triggered by protests by six countries, was an embarrassing detail that China’s ultra-patriotic media had omitted to tell the nation. Nor was there mention that China’s appeal of that decision had been denied by the International Orienteering Federation.
As the Guardian newspaper so cleverly put it, the Chinese orienteering team had “lost its moral compass.” Canada must not lose its moral compass in its unseemly rush to smother the emerging superpower with affection that it has not earned.
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
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