The West Block – Episode 12, Season 9

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Saturday, November 24, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 12, Season 9

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Senator Jim Risch, Emily Lau, Minister Harjit Sajjan

Location: Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax, on Canada’s east coast, was settled as a security buffer against the French in the north over 200 years ago. And today, it is the site of the 11th annual Halifax International Security Summit.

Mercedes Stephenson: Hello. It’s Sunday, November 24th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Top military, political and security leaders from around the world have gathered here in Halifax, to talk about the challenges faces NATO, a resurgent Russia, and the effect that political upheaval around the globe is having on our collective peace and security. But there’s a common theme coming up throughout these discussions: the role of China, and how the central government there has been responding to the protests in Hong Kong, human rights violations, and China’s push at the global economic table.

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U.S. Senator Jim Risch is the chairman of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee and an insider at the Oval Office. I sat down with the senator late last week. Here’s that conversation.

Senator Risch, thank you so much for joining us.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Glad to be here. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: You recently signed off on legislation that would suspend non-lethal crowd control measures going to China, some of the things that we’ve seen being used in the streets of Hong Kong. The Chinese government is now threatening to retaliate if President Trump signs that legislation. Are you concerned about what China might do?

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Well we’re always concerned about what China might do, but look, the purpose of this was to get them to rethink their position and there’s two ways of handling it. They can get angry and stomp their foot and retaliate or they can step back, catch a deep breath and say I wonder what the rest of the international community thinks about this. And they will find that they’re pretty much by themselves on this.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you willing to consider economic sanctions, because that’s one of the things that people are saying this bill would pave the way for, the possibility of diplomatic or economic sanctions.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Look, when America, Canada, the world, generally, is about human rights and about freedom and about democracy. Not everybody, the minority have different ideas. But if you’re going to fight for those things today, you don’t use the battlefield anymore. I mean, economic sanctions are non-kinetic ways of communicating to someone that they need to re-evaluate the conduct that they’ve involved in.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have a sense that there’s a red line for the United States that if the Hong Kong government crosses a certain point or if the Chinese government and the mainland crosses a certain point, there would be greater action than we’ve seen so far because there’s been a lot of condemnation but not a lot of consequences.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: I’m always afraid to—or reluctant to; I guess would be a better word—talk in term of red lines. The Chinese know what kind of conduct generates what kind of response from the world community and they know where they are on that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Canada is still deciding whether or not to allow Huawei to participate in the 5G network here. How do you think a yes, a decision to move forward and allow Huawei to participate, would affect our security relationship with the United States?

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: I would really urge the government officials that are making that decision, to go into a skiff with people from the intelligence community here in Canada, and they will hear some things that will widen their eyes as far as the dangers of getting involved with Huawei. I’m on the intelligence community. We deal with this every day. Huawei’s been an issue for us for a long time, and we’ve urged all our partners, all our allies, all the free world, to assess whether they really want to be hooking up to Huawei products. Huawei is a Chinese company and we all know that China is an authoritarian government. It is really the Communist Party and the Communist Party has access to every bit and byte of information in the country, and all things that are on people’s private phones and everything else.

Mercedes Stephenson: Turning to Turkey. You were in the room when the Turkish president showed that video to President Trump—

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: More than that, I was—

Mercedes Stephenson: What did you make of that?

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Well, I was—the president said it was my deal is how it started because I was the one that was urging that we talk with him directly about the S-400 missiles. They could have the S-400 missiles if they wanted to, but they couldn’t have the F-35s, our F-35s, America’s, Canada’s, the other allies, NATOs F-35s. The two are not compatible to be working in the same country. As the chairman of the foreign relations committee, I have to sign off on all weapons that leave the country for another country and I told him, I am not signing off on the F-35s as long as you have S-400 missiles in your country and under your control. There have been five of them that have been made and they’re sitting in the United States ready to ship to them but they’re not leaving until the S-400s are gone. And I think when we sat just like this, I told him that’s where we were and that’s not going to change. So he’s got to make some tough decisions. And he’s a very firm individual is the kindest thing I can say about it but he’s got to make some decisions.

Mercedes Stephenson: Should Turkey still be a member of NATO?

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: If you’re going to be a member of NATO, you ought to act like a member of NATO and you ought to do the things that are in NATOs and your allies’ best interest.

Mercedes Stephenson: Canada and the U.S. both fought alongside the Kurds. They were really at the sharp end of the stick in fighting ISIS, and now, you have Turkey making these incursions, all kinds of allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses of Kurdish people on the Syrian side of the border. Has the U.S. abandoned the Kurds?

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Well, not really. I certainly wouldn’t put it in that turn. We had a NATO ally on one side and in Turkey and Kurd allies against ISIS on the other side and the two of them were going to get into it. And there was no doubt they were going to get into it, and with what had happened with the upheaval in northern Syria, this was going to happen. A lot of people are trying to blame this on President Trump and saying that he gave the Turks a green light. I can tell you, absolutely, he did not give Turkish government a green light to go into Syria.

Mercedes Stephenson: But he did praise the president.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Pardon?

Mercedes Stephenson: He praised the president.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Well, he does a lot of things.

Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to Canada-U.S. relations, Cameron Ortis, who is the head of strategic intelligence for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was arrested and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Acts, allegedly. According to the RCMP, he tried to sell secrets to foreign entities. If that’s true, would it affect the security relationship with the United States and the willingness of the U.S. government to share intelligence with Canada?

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: I’m on the intelligence committee. I’m number two on our intelligence committee. I can neither confirm nor deny the facts regarding that particular individual or what he had allegedly done. The short answer to your question is absolutely not. Will it cause everybody to redo some things? Probably.

Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap up, but just as we do, with the impeachment hearings and all the involvement and discussion of U.S. foreign policy, are you worried that that’s affecting America’s perception in the world?

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Well, not really. I think most people in the world are confident that Donald Trump will be president throughout the rest of this term of office. It takes a two thirds vote in the United States Senate to impeach him. That will require 20 of the Republicans crossing over and joining 47 of the Democrats to impeach him. That simply isn’t going to happen.

Mercedes Stephenson: Senator, we truly appreciate your time.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you so much.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, a conversation with Emily Lau for the Democratic Party in Hong Kong, on the tensions between Hong Kong and China, and China’s growing influence around the world.

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Welcome back to Halifax. For months, protestors in Hong Kong have been in the streets, demanding their civil liberties be maintained and respected. But as confrontations between police and protestors have grown increasingly violent, so has global concern about the situation in Hong Kong. I sat down with former chairperson of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, Emily Lau. She’s been at the forefront of the global attention on Hong Kong’ers demands. Here’s that conversation.

Emily Lau, thank you so much for joining us.

Emily Lau: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve been at the forefront of these protests and many times you’ve been the face and the voice internationally of the movement. What is it that the protestors in Hong Kong are hoping to achieve today?

Emily Lau: Well, I think that the protest, the demands have morphed in the last few months. Initially, of course, people were angry with the extradition bill, which seeks to send people to mainland China for trial, and people are very frightened because over there, there’s complete lawlessness. You will not get a free trial, and I speak with some authority because I’m on the board of directors of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG). And then, of course, we have peaceful marches and then they generate into clashes with the police: teargas and all that. And the government refused to withdraw the bill. Then, people’s demands kept increasing: investigate the police brutality. Why do you call the thing a riot? Can you give these people arrested amnesty? And then of course, their demands for really democratic elections, because we don’t have democratically elected government in Hong Kong, so that’s what the people are asking for.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re being honoured for what the people of Hong Kong are doing. You’re symbolically accepting that honour here at the Halifax forum, but it’s an opportunity for you to speak to some of the most powerful people in the world. What is your message to them about what’s at stake in Hong Kong?

Emily Lau: Well, I think some of the diplomats I’ve spoken to either here or in Hong Kong, they regard Hong Kong as a barometer of how China would behave because they see the rise in China, more and more arrogant and, you know, dismissive of universal values. We don’t want war. Nobody’s going to go to war with China over Hong Kong, but to tell China, hey, you better behave. You made a promise to Hong Kong, and to the world, that you’re going to treat Hong Kong in a decent way, allow them to enjoy the freedoms, so why are you reneging on it? So I think—and China care, because China cares about face. If China’s criticized internationally, I don’t think they like it. But if nobody says anything, they will think ah, wow, that’s good.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that that concern about international perception and saving some face limits how far they’re willing to go?

Emily Lau: Well, I think the level of international concern and interests is definitely one thing they consider. Just if you look back a few months ago when finally, the Hong Kong government decided to withdraw the extradition bill, and one of the pro-Beijing figures came out and told the media: well, actually, we think there’s nothing wrong with the bill. But in the past few days, there were 67 statements issued by foreign governments, 67 statements. They counted to the last one, and they were not bombs, just statements. But to them, it matters. So I certainly hope that the international community would just keep up expressing concern, urging China to exercise restraint because there’s concern that they would use the People’s Liberation Army to quell the unrest. So far, it hasn’t happened. And I hope that, you know, the international public opinion will continue to tell China: hey, that’s not on. We don’t want a Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong. So I think it is important. Well, the other thing, of course, the most fundamental things, is Hong Kong still useful to China? And I’m sure it is. We’ve got rule of law. We’re an international financial centre.

Mercedes Stephenson: What is your advice for Canada, because the Chinese government has threatened and scolded Canada not to say anything further about Hong Kong? They have two Canadians, which they’ve detained and accused of spying. The Canadian government says that this is completely arbitrary detention. They will tell you behind the scenes they believe that it’s retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the CEO—the CFO, pardon me, of Huawei and there’s concern for their safety. And at the same time, Huawei wants access to Canada under the 5G network. What advice would you give to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

Emily Lau: Well I hope the prime minister will have the courage, and the dignity, to stand up and speak out. And when he does so, I hope he has the support of the Canadian people, who all want to be upstanding human being, and also have the support of their allies: the Americans and others in the international community, because there is one thing that China looks down on, is people who are too timid. Maybe they like it but deep down inside they laugh at you. So you have to stand up and say hey, this isn’t—not right. You mustn’t act like that. So, I hope the Prime Minister, Trudeau, would not be intimidated by the Chinese. I know the Chinese ambassador here, a new ambassador, said something to warn the Canadians not to work with the Americans, to pass legislation, to punish guilty officials. Why not? This is your sovereignty. This is your Parliament. If you want to enact such legislation, it’s up to you. But if you are intimidated, not only China will look down on you, even your own people, your allies will look down on you because you have no courage. But, of course, it takes a lot to act with courage. And you say what if they hurt our country? Well, of course, there could be consequences. Like everything in life, whether it’s for a prime minister or for an individual, whatever you say or do, there may be consequences. So you have to think it through carefully, and you have the courage to say yes, I will say this on behalf of my people and I’m prepared to take the consequences, and so will you because, you know, it’s a two-way street. I’m going to Toronto next Tuesday, to give a talk there and we have informed the Toronto police because some people told me that we could have a nasty scene on campus. Ah, well, this isn’t—this cannot be tolerated. You have to stand up for what you believe in, not to bully others, but to defend what you believe in.

Mercedes Stephenson: Powerful words. Emily Lau, thank you so much for joining us.

Emily Lau: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was one of the few cabinet ministers who got to keep his portfolio in the cabinet swearing in last week, but what are his plans going forward for Canada’s military?

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back to the show. We are sitting down with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, one of the few ministers who kept his portfolio in the recent cabinet swearing in. You’re also from British Columbia. You’re a western Canada. Your government is trying to figure out how to approach a minority situation, and how to deal with the alienation in Alberta and in Saskatchewan. What advice have you given the prime minister on how to approach that?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: You know what? The approach that our government is taking with not only with our cabinet, you know, this is about addressing Canadians’ needs and that’s what exactly what we’re going to do is hear those concerns and how we can move forward in making sure that they feel that their voices are also heard and also the things that they want and need that we can deliver on those.

Mercedes Stephenson: There’s been a lot of concern here at the Halifax forum about the influence of China and the direction that that country’s going in. Are you considering putting more Canadian military assets into that region?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: One thing that was very missing, we knew before we even launched the defence policy is they’ve not—I mean, put China aside—better presence in the Asia-Pacific was not consistent. That’s something that I heard from our partners and that we will come up with a plan to be more persistent and that’s exactly what we have done. And so now you have seen greater exercise that’ll be conducted, more deployments and also with Operation NEON, the sanctions [00:17:59] against North Korea is something that we’re doing. Now, nations in the Asia-Pacific can actually rely on us because they know that we are having a persistence presence.

Mercedes Stephenson: So that’s a presence that could increase.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: And when I first increased our presence into the area, it was about looking at building those relationships, humanitarian disasters, making sure that we look at foreign fighters in that region. We have the flexibility to do more, but these are the decisions we as a government will make so that we can be a reliable partner.

Mercedes Stephenson: NATO spending, it’s been a tense issue between Canada and the U.S. at times. They’d like us to be spending 2 per cent. We’re not spending 2 per cent, despite saying we plan to get there. I’ve had multiple sources tell me that the Canadian government received an official demarche, which is like a diplomatic reprimand. A letter from the U.S. embassy saying you promised you were going to send more. We don’t see any evidence that you’re spending more. Tell me about that letter and your response to it?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: Well first of all, it’s not just about this administration. We’ve had previous administrations always talking about burden sharing. And when they talked about the Wales pledge, something that we had been supporting, one of the things that we did, our prime minister did, and especially when you go back to 2015, was we talked about the importance of multilateralism and how we need to do our part strengthening NATO. In fact, actually, the prime minister put it in my previous mandate letter: how to strengthen those ties with NATO. To do this, what he also directed me to do is conduct a full defence policy review. And that comprehensive review had allowed us—

Mercedes Stephenson: But that review, minister, was years ago. I mean, we’re talking about now and whether or not you’re going to meet that 2 per cent spending goal.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: No, but not only that. But the thing is what you need to do is demonstrate—you have to get an idea of where we’re at. And if you look at not just with NATO, our presence, we have to look at the arctic, our presence in the Pacific. What we need to look in Canada allows us to have a very thorough look of what we can do, which included our support to the NATO. So now once we have that comprehensive plan, which now allowed us to increase our spending by 70 per cent, allows us to now invest in the right capabilities. Those capabilities are not just that we’re investing in high level capabilities that look into the future are based on what NATO is going to need, what potential future coalitions might need, what we might need to do in the Arctic. But then the final piece to it is extremely—probably the most important piece—is the contributions, is have the cash that gives you the capabilities, but you need to contribute.

Mercedes Stephenson: But the Americans are very clearly saying in that letter, you are not spending 2 per cent. Why are you not spending 2 per cent? You’re supposed to be spending 2 per cent. You’re supposed to be moving towards it. We don’t see you doing that. I mean, that’s an unusual move for them to send that kind of a letter to you.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: Well I think as I stated, is we’ve been having discussions about burden sharing for some time, and what we need to do, to get to your investments, 70 per cent increase is a significant amount. So—

Mercedes Stephenson: But where did that money go?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: Sorry?

Mercedes Stephenson: Because we don’t have vastly more people. We haven’t vastly more equipment.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: No, in fact, actually, this is where I hope to disagree with you. The plan that we’ve put out in the defence policy has outlined the defence investment plan, where we work with the defence industry. We’ve actually outlined for the next 10 years where we want to go. And we actually have the money for it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Isn’t that pushing the money forward, though, to when you run a government?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: No, no, no. This is something that we need to be able to educate Canadians more on. The plan that we’ve put into place is about having the money for when the procurement comes, significant amount—

Mercedes Stephenson: Interestingly, you’ve increased it 70 per cent of the overall defence budget.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: By 2026, so from 2016-17—

Mercedes Stephenson: By 2026 but not right now.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: We need to make sure you have the right money at the appropriate time. But the investments that we’re making into our people, the satellites that we’re putting up, we have enough money for not just the five ships we purchased, a sixth as well. The 15 surface combatants are fully costed. The fighter procurement project is ongoing as well. So these are those things that the significant increase that we’re making, we need to first, making sure that we’re able to deliver on the plan that we have right now. Things are on track. That allows us to look at the other future investments that we also need to make, which also does not include any type of deployments that we take. That’s outside of the defence policy.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you concerned about the relationship with the Americans, though, when they are saying that they don’t know whether NATO is still viable? The French president is saying that NATO is brain dead, and the Americans are saying look, people have to step up to the plate and they’re  basically shaming you in this letter saying why aren’t you doing more?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: The relationship with Canada and the U.S., the defence relationship, I think, is even stronger now, because they see a tangible plan that we have created. It’s working, actually, extremely well. But let’s not forget, when it comes to things even like procurement, you have to invest in people to make it happen.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Sajjan, thank you so much for your time today.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: Great, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us from right here in Halifax. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Have a great week.