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COMMENTARY: Three ominous policy challenges await Canada’s new Parliament

Canadian Forces CH-47 Chinooks participate in a flyover of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, May 9, 2014.
Canadian Forces CH-47 Chinooks participate in a flyover of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, May 9, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Canadian foreign and security policy is sure to test the mettle of Global Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence and the federal government during its new, more complicated minority mandate.

The defining issues are:

  • How Canada and its friends and allies deal with China’s emerging military and economic power in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world, its constant bullying of its neighbours and unrelenting repression of millions of its own citizens;
  • What to do about Russia’s intrigue, mischief and worse in the cyber domain, the Middle East, the High Arctic, Ukraine and along the historic fault line that runs from the Baltics to the Black Sea
  • How to sort out Canada’s habitual problems with defence procurement, which have left the world’s second-largest and 10th wealthiest country decades behind in acquiring platforms and systems that are crucial to the defence of Canada and the West

READ MORE: Canada isn’t doing enough against global threats, uprisings warns former CSIS chief

Dick Fadden, a retired national security adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper and former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, got a lot of attention last week when he warned that “Russia and China are not just aggressive competitors, they are our strategic adversaries.”

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With the U.S. no longer interested or perhaps no longer capable of being top dog, Fadden argued that Canada must work much more closely with its other western allies to devise ways to hold Russia and China in check.

For starters, the West has not even figured out how to develop a common threat assessment. It’s so bad that Fadden described the situation as dysfunctional.

Fadden has been making similarly ominous warnings about Russia and especially about China for years. But until now, his words have not received much attention in Ottawa, nor from the media. However, similarly dire cautionary words by their own experts have deeply disturbed governments in Europe, Australia and the U.S.

What Fadden and others in Canada’s security and intelligence community are up against is that even after China’s outrageous kidnapping and detention of a former Canadian diplomat and another Canadian citizen, and the buzzing by frontline Chinese warplanes of a Canadian warship in international waters, an ardent pro-China lobby remains ascendant at Global Affairs Canada.

Perhaps more shocking is that Canada’s business leaders and several well-known retired politicians who are in China’s thrall — and have presumably done well out of their business connections there — have ignored the kidnappings and China’s long list of human rights abuses, while talking up the urgent need for Canada to roll over on Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou’s extradition case in order to get back in Beijing’s good graces.

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Hong Kong protesters vent anger on streets of Mong Kok, set fire to bank
Hong Kong protesters vent anger on streets of Mong Kok, set fire to bank

In so doing, Canada would be ignoring the fate of protesters in Hong Kong who wish to regain the freedoms that they were promised when control of the former British colony reverted to China. It would also give China a free pass on its gross mistreatment of as many as one million Muslim Uighurs held in camps in a territory that has been called “the most Dystopian place in the world.”

There is also the entirely separate matter of China’s interference on Canadian university campuses, why Canada is not diversifying Asian trade with a renewed emphasis on Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan and Vietnam and the growing number of Chinese nationals being accused of espionage.

One of the biggest questions is whether Canada should allow Huawei’s 5G cell phone technology into Canada. Many in the western intelligence community are convinced that China intends to use this back door to gain access to intelligence that could undermine Canada’s security and to steal intellectual property.

READ MORE: Huawei founder, whose daughter is under arrest in Canada, speaks out about U.S. pressure

A decision on Huawei is supposed to be imminent, and to not appease China on Huawei will anger Beijing. On the other hand, and hardly mentioned so far, is that to allow Huawei into Canada threatens to cause potentially catastrophic harm to Ottawa’s relations with Washington, which is convinced that Huawei is a Trojan horse designed to snatch U.S. military and business secrets.

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Every few days brings fresh signs of China trying to achieve global dominance in areas where it was not even a player a few years ago. Not satisfied with controlling only three container terminals near Athens, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently won agreement from Greece to reopen talks about Chinese control of a fourth terminal after making a personal call to the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Is lifting the meat ban the first step in ending the Canada-China trade war?
Is lifting the meat ban the first step in ending the Canada-China trade war?

When looked at on its own, buying up Greek ports does not seem like an urgent threat to western security interests. But it’s part of a pattern that not only involves ports in NATO countries such as Greece and Italy, but also roads and railways.

It follows similar Chinese moves in the Middle East, Africa and in half a dozen countries in Asia, where Beijing now has a stranglehold on ports that it has already begun to sometimes use to support its navy, which is rapidly developing a blue-water capability to project China’s power far from its shores.

There is also the sinister development of at least seven military airfields on disputed atolls in the South China Sea, far from Mainland China, that could be used to control trade through the most heavily-travelled sea lanes in the world. This happened after Chairman Xi Jinping specifically stated five years ago that his government only had peaceful purposes in mind as it began its island-building project, situated on rock and sand outcroppings that an international court has found did not belong to China  — a ruling that Beijing has ignored.

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White House security adviser talks NATO, Turkey’s relationship with Russia
White House security adviser talks NATO, Turkey’s relationship with Russia

Though a lesser threat, Russia also presents Canada with a security dilemma. President Vladimir Putin continues to keep Canada’s friend, Ukraine, off balance, and his government’s actions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are a potential risk to the troops that Canada has in Latvia, Ukraine and Iraq.

They’re also a risk to NATO, which holds important talks next month in London that will inevitably centre on Russia and the Trump administration’s unpredictable support for the Atlantic alliance.

On NORAD or the defence of the North America front, Russia is building or vastly improving military airfields and missile defences in the High Arctic while developing new generations of highly-lethal ballistic and hypersonic missiles. Canada, meanwhile, has dawdled for years about whether it should join the U.S. in setting up a new ballistic missile umbrella to defend North America against one of the most dangerous of these threats.

The Kremlin is constantly using disinformation and naked propaganda to undermine Western influence and interfere with Western elections.

UK delays publishing report on alleged Russia poll meddling until after election
UK delays publishing report on alleged Russia poll meddling until after election

Nothing that Canada might wish to do in the security realm, of course, will work if it does not have the kit to manage the problems. The government, however, may be making a modest but positive start on how to much better manage the way that Canada acquires billions of dollars of defence equipment. During the election campaign, the Liberals said that if they stayed in power, they intended to streamline military acquisitions by creating an agency they call Defence Procurement Canada.

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READ MORE: With billions at risk, federal parties promise to fix defence, procurement

However, until now, there have been virtually no details about what powers such as agency might have, only good intentions and suggestions that the currently slow process may be taken entirely outside the existing system, in which four separate government departments and the prime minister’s office have a say.

It is unclear until now how such a change might help Canada finally replace the RCAF’s vintage VIP jets, both small and large, as well as new fighter jets that have been the subject of highly partisan political maneuvering for decade that have cost taxpayers staggering sums of money.

Would, for example, changes to the procurement system speed up the purchase and deployment of new fighter jets that will not, according to current plans, be put in operation for another 13 years, though the USAF and manufacturers claim three or four years should be more than time enough?

Would it mean that the RCN gets frigates sooner than now planned, to replace a fleet that began to enter service nearly 40 years ago?

And will it accelerate the acquisition process for the military’s cyber warriors to get the kind of equipment they urgently require to fend off literally hundreds of thousands of attempts by Russia, China, North Korea and terrorist groups to gain entry to secure military and intelligence channels?

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There was infamously almost no discussion of these three pre-eminent foreign and security policy considerations during the recent federal election campaign.

Given how little any of the political parties are interested in such issues, it may be too much to hope that with a minority government, and opposition control of parliamentary committees, elected officials will finally begin to publicly discuss how they intend to defend Canada against the emerging threats that they have been warned about.

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