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COMMENTARY: Canada’s new foreign minister must figure out how to deal with China

WATCH: François-Philippe Champagne was announced as Canada’s new foreign affairs minister on Wednesday, taking over for Chrystia Freeland who was appointed deputy prime minister.

China, China, China.

Figuring out a strategy for how to get along with the growing economic and military colossus will likely be the major preoccupation of Canadian foreign ministers and governments for the rest of this century. It should dominate the foreign policy agenda for next few years.

Whatever her strengths and her alleged power within cabinet, Chrystia Freeland was not often able to get past the Prime Minister’s Office to criticize China, though she did manage to clearly state recently Canada’s opposition to how Beijing was manhandling protesters in Hong Kong.

READ MORE: ‘Dynamic’ François-Philippe Champagne set to put traits to test as foreign affairs minister

The Globe and Mail’s Steve Chase unearthed a nugget this week that strongly suggests that in Freeland’s successor at foreign affairs, Francois-Philippe Champagne, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has found another China fanboy to complement his new ambassador to the Court of Chairman Xi, Dominic Barton.

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Only two years ago, Champagne praised the Xi government in an interview that he gave to the state-backed China Global Television Network.

“In a world of uncertainty, of unpredictability, of questioning about the rules that have been established to govern our trading relationship, Canada, and I would say China, stand out as [a] beacon of stability, predictability, a rule-based system, a very inclusive society,” Champagne said.

This gushing declaration was of a piece with what Trudeau himself said six years ago, when he told a party fundraiser that the country that he most admired was China’s “basic dictatorship.”

Moreover, Champagne is a protégé and friend of Jean Chretien.

The former prime minister has been one of those loudly leading the charge to have Canada ignore its legal processes and end the extradition hearing of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who faces 13 charges of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the U.S., in order to get China and Canada back to talking trade.

China urges re-elected Canadian government to free Huawei exec Meng Wanzhou
China urges re-elected Canadian government to free Huawei exec Meng Wanzhou

With Freeland keeping the U.S. trade file in addition to her new duties as what might best be called Canada’s first minister of national unity, that should leave Champagne with more time to seriously consider a balanced policy towards China rather than the lopsided, ardently pro-China policy favoured by the PMO and most of the country’s leading diplomats and business groups.

He should heed polls that suggest Canadians are far less keen on closer ties with Beijing than he and his government are.

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The Liberals barely spoke about China or anything to do with foreign policy or national security during the recent federal election campaign. And Trudeau famously skipped the only television debate on foreign policy, causing the Munk School to entirely scrap that event.

Just about the only quasi-security commitment that Trudeau made during the campaign was an announcement that, if re-elected, the Liberals intended to try to untangle the military purchase process by creating a Defence Procurement Agency.

Trudeau has made clear that in leading a minority government during his second term, his intention will be to focus on domestic issues for the next few years.

Bringing home his peripatetic foreign minister, Freeland, underscores this commitment.

Though Freeland has been fawned over by the media for her handling of the foreign affairs ministry, she, Global Affairs Canada and the government, writ large, barely articulated any vision regarding the country’s place in the world. Truth be told, Canada does not really have a foreign policy.

There hasn’t been a statement of priorities and what, exactly, the country’s national interest is or should be. What Canadians have heard aplenty have been the usual self-congratulatory and utterly empty bromides about being advocates for NATO, NORAD, peace, stability and rule of law.

Champagne might wish to stop the Canadian practice of speaking so often about the importance of its alliances and demonstrate leadership within them or on its own. What has been urgently required for some time is a realistic national discussion about Canada’s rather limp standing in the world.

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What Canadians have heard instead has been a lot of the usual nonsense about how the country punches above its weight and is regarded as a paragon of virtue.

Canada badly needs a foreign policy strategy that acknowledges that the world has profoundly changed. It must recognize that the Indo-Pacific, and not only China, is the realm of paramount importance.

This will, perforce, oblige Canada to pay less attention to its traditional partners in Europe, though it must keep a close watch on Russian intentions there, in the Middle East and in the High Arctic.

NATO to adopt new strategies on space
NATO to adopt new strategies on space

The Trudeau government has seemed to react to crises on an ad hoc and sometimes capricious basis during its first term. Much was made, and usually in a preachy way, about how bad the Venezuelan and Russian dictatorships were.

Yet little has been said about the growing list of outrages perpetrated by the Chinese dictatorship at home and abroad, including its meddling on Canadian university campuses, its relentless attempts to penetrate and co-opt Canadian political echelon and the staggering number of digital assaults that its hackers have been making on Canadian government and industry computer servers.

Nor has Canada taken a harder line with China since it kidnapped two Canadians nearly one year ago and held them in dire circumstances since, or slapped import controls on imports of Canadian pork, beef and canola in obvious retaliation for Canada putting Meng through the extradition process.

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READ MORE: Chinese ambassador reiterates call for Canada to free Meng Wanzhou

One consequence of Ottawa remaining in the grips of China trade fever, no matter what the cost to the country’s pride or principles, is that Canada has chosen to invest little in growing its economic and security relations with friendly, reliable Asian partners, or its presence and clout within APEC and especially ASEAN, which China has been busily fracturing by buying off its poorest members.

Canada has also chosen not to try to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, whose members are Japan, India, Australia and the U.S., which is something the Tories promised to do if elected.

While China is the elephant occupying more and more space in foreign ministry offices around the world, there are, of course, other pressing issues.

Canada had made hollow boasts about the global leadership that it has shown on the environment, yet there has been virtually no change in Canada’s failure to meet environmental targets since Stephen Harper was in power. Canada had made a noisy play for African UN votes to secure a non-voting seat on the Security Council, but paradoxically, only a few hundred Canadian peacekeepers spent 13 months in Mali.

Freeland failed to even visit Africa once and has not spoken much on the Middle East — despite the fact that, like Africa, it is full of UN votes that Trudeau allegedly covets.

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Not that you would know it in sleepy Canada, but the world is entering a highly unstable era where the most likely flashpoints will be in the maritime domain. China is constantly threatening to attack Taiwan and actively pursuing what the Rand Corporation has called “grey zone coercion” against the Philippines and Vietnam through outrageous and illegal territorial claims.

Further, China continues to harass fishermen and challenge others who build oil drilling platforms in the South China Sea while sending out its navy, coast guard and weaponized fishing militia to assert its claim to almost all of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

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

With every passing day, China has more of the means to do what it wants in some parts of the western Pacific. Over the past year alone, for example, it produced 19 new blue water warships. Canada may border three oceans and have the world’s longest coastline, but the entire Royal Canadian Navy’s surface war-fighting fleet consists of 12 vessels that are each 25 years older or more.

While Canada has been sleeping, the West has been on a long losing streak, not only in the Indo-Pacific but in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Its influence has receded in almost every important area and there has been no common strategy to halt the bleeding.

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All is not yet lost, though. Canada could, for example, help the West take back the initiative from China by advocating for the establishment of a NATO-like Asian security alliance of like-minded nations, by greatly increasing trade with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and India, and by working collaboratively with partners on big infrastructure programmes to prevent the island states of the South Pacific from falling further under Beijing’s spell.

This could be the template to do more of the same across the developing world to give smaller countries a democratic alternative to counter authoritarian China’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

Whether Canada will show such leadership is an open question. But the portents are not good.

Champagne has, in his own words, shown that on China he is an acolyte of Chretien and Canada’s new ambassador to Beijing, Barton. And Canada remains far more Euro-centric than Asian-centric.

A question Champagne should ask himself as he attends his first G20 foreign minister’s meeting in Japan this weekend is whether Canada is better off in geo-strategic terms today than it was four years ago and what might make it worse off in two or three years. The answers, if Ottawa is honest with itself, should ring alarm bells.

Will they?

Editor’s Note: the line which stated Chrystia Freeland ‘did not manage to clearly state recently Canada’s opposition to how Beijing was manhandling protesters in Hong Kong’ has been corrected to state that she did.

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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