An old maxim in Canadian politics is that foreign policy never matters to voters or politicians.
This harsh truth was underlined last fall when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boycotted a leaders’ debate on foreign policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School and the other party leaders fell in line with him with barely a critical word.
Politicians beware. That may be different when Canadians mark their ballots in the next federal election.
Until Wednesday, the prime minister would not publicly consider the question of whether China was dishonest about what it had told its people and the world about COVID-19.
Speaking at a media briefing Wednesday, Trudeau suddenly changed course and said, for the first time, that he would have questions “particularly” for China about how the coronavirus pandemic began and how it handled the early days of the crisis.
Why the change?
It undoubtedly had to do with a poll published late Tuesday by the Angus Reid Institute that found that more than 85 per cent of Canadians believe China lied about what it knew about the coronavirus.
This was of a piece with only 14 per cent of Canadians having a positive opinion about China, which is less than half what it was six months ago. China is now so poorly regarded that even after four years of Donald Trump’s bizarre leadership, 38 per cent of Canadians still retained a positive view of the United States.
Angus Reid also found Canadians want their government to check China’s misconduct. Four in five of those polled want Canada to follow the advice of its intelligence agencies and military and reject a bid by Huawei, the state-backed Chinese telecoms powerhouse which has demanded that it be part of this country’s 5G cellular infrastructure.
Under Trudeau, trade with China has been a top priority. Yet only 11 per cent of those polled want Canada to continue to concentrate on trade with the economic colossus. Most of those polled said that rather than trade, China’s record on human rights and its adherence to the rule of law should be of paramount importance.
This, by the way, is not a new Canadian sentiment brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. An Ipsos poll conducted last June showed that when it comes to foreign policy, human rights are more important to Canadians than trade relations.
This blitz of numbers was a heavy rebuke of the Trudeau government’s devotion to a policy of trying to sweet-talk Beijing into accepting Canada as a favoured trading partner.
Fairly or not, the prime minister’s former senior foreign policy adviser, Roland Paris, is still regarded as having a strong influence on government thinking, so what he had to say to a Slovakia-hosted webinar discussion Tuesday about how to manage future relations with Beijing was interesting.
Apparently rejecting years of official orthodoxy in Ottawa, the University of Ottawa professor said: “We can’t afford to treat China as a friend — it isn’t.”
Paris’s opinion followed by a few hours the revelation in the Globe and Mail that Canada’s man in Beijing, Ambassador Dominic Barton, had told a video talk arranged last week by the Canadian International Council that he “probably drank the Kool-Aid there for too long” when he ran the McKinsey consultancy’s China operations.
Global National had a groundbreaking story at the end of April about China’s covert attempt to corner the world supply of medical safety gear while apparently hiding from the world what it knew about the lethal coronavirus. On Tuesday, Global National reported on attempts by Chinese front organizations to intimidate Chinese nationals and Chinese-Canadians individuals and groups here who oppose the Communist dictatorship.
More bad news for the Trudeau’s China policy probably lies ahead. A relatively new parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations has been charged with examining every aspect of the connections between the two countries. Canada must obviously not conduct a witchhunt while pondering many hard questions about what China has been up to in Canada, and governments here have tolerated dubious behaviour.
Obvious areas of deep concern include the coronavirus saga, industrial espionage, how China imposes trade bans on Canadian agricultural products, a big buildup in cyber and conventional military capabilities, and the country’s harsh treatment of several of its ethnic minorities.
Other issues that must be urgently examined include why China needs the biggest embassy and biggest consulates in Canada, and whether state-backed Confucius Institutes and the United Workers Front named in Global News’ reports should be shut down.
Being part of an OPEC-like cartel would probably be unacceptable to many western countries, but Canada and its traditional partners that have major export-oriented agricultural sectors, such as Australia and the U.S. and the European Union, should discuss ways with countries such as Brazil to prevent China from playing countries off against each other when it dishes out trade sanctions to those who dare criticize it.
Consideration must also be given to greatly growing trade with Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and India. Their governments and business leaders have been confused and frustrated that Canada has until now been so besotted by business prospects in China that it has ignored their desire to trade more with them.
A lot of the items on this long list of what Canada might do are wishful thinking. To have any chance of success with even a few of them, the West would have to pull together for once. But the current policy of trying to get closer to China has not gotten Canada very far.
Trudeau has not yet shown any inclination to be part of a group of nations that has less to do with China and Chairman Xi Xinping’s Communist dictatorship still has very deep pockets and remains prone to temper tantrums, histrionics and revenge when it does not get its way.
But as the Angus Reid poll make plain, the strong trend in Canada is clear. Canadians want their government to radically alter its thinking on China.
If the prime minister is not brave enough to do that, China may become a major election issue.
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