When China gets up to no good, Canada must do more than wag a finger

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the G20 Extraordinary Virtual Leaders' Summit on COVID-19 via video link in Beijing, capital of China, March 26, 2020. Li Xueren/Xinhua via AP

A whack of documents supplied to some international media over the weekend has provided evidence of China’s attempts to identify westerners — including nearly 4,000 Canadians — who could be attacked through coercive social media or other types of cyber warfare.

This shocking revelation, which first appeared in Canada in the Globe and Mail, is a dark complement to research that an Australian think tank published recently about what China is up to in the remote South Pacific. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) provides details of a significant play that China is making to co-opt Kiribati, which is made up of three archipelagos scattered across a swath of sea that is half as wide as Australia.

The gambit in Oceania’s backwaters and the activities of a data company with ties to China’s military and intelligence establishments underscores the staggering breadth of Beijing’s global ambitions. It is casting covetous eyes at strategically important specks of land many thousands of kilometres from the Chinese mainland at the same it is burrowing its cyber tentacles deep inside the wealthiest Western countries to probe for vulnerabilities that can be exploited.

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For those readers unfamiliar with Kiribati (pronounced Kirabas), it is 32 atolls, a coral island and 110,000 souls. It is one of the countries that is most at risk of rising seas caused by global warming and is also in the middle of the world’s biggest untapped tuna fishing grounds.

On Tarawa, which is Kiribati’s capital, the U.S. Marine Corps was schooled in 1943 by the Imperial Japanese Army about how much American blood and treasure would have to be expended to expel Emperor Hirohito’s troops from atolls and islands stretching across much of the Pacific.

China’s Kiribati stratagem is eerily reminiscent of Japan’s pre-war manoeuvering in the South Pacific. The main goal then as now would appear to be to control vital shipping lanes between the U.S. and Australia and New Zealand and threaten the U.S.’s Pacific possessions.

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Less than one year after Kiribati switched its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China, Beijing has offered to dredge lagoons to enlarge some atolls. If that sounds familiar, it is because the same Chinese equipment and work crews converted at least seven Filipino and Vietnamese-claimed outcroppings in the South China Sea into “Chinese islands” bristling with missiles, radar systems, ammunition and fuel dumps, and airfields capable of handling fighter jets and the biggest military transports.

Not forgotten in Washington is that only five years earlier, President Xi Jinping had pledged China had no intention to militarize the atolls.

Plans for Kiribati include building two major ports in the middle of the empty southern ocean. There would be little obvious advantage for Kiribati to have such ports, though building one of them on Kiritimati, which used to be called Christmas Island, could be a strategic nightmare for the Americans because that atoll is less than 2,000 kilometres away from Pearl Harbor which, as in the Second World War, is the U.S. navy’s crown jewel in the Pacific.

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China already can use an old U.S. satellite tracking facility in Kiribati. It is trying to further develop relations with an island in French Polynesia where it is building a $2-billion fish farm near a deep water harbour and a disused military airfield.

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Canada already has a lot on its plate in trying to maintain what’s left of its shaky relationship with China, which has been poisoned by the Meng Wanzhou-Huawei extradition dispute, the subsequent kidnapping by China of the “two Michaels” and sharp questions in Canada about whether some of the many Mainland Chinese students attending university here spy for the Chinese military or for government-controlled companies.

Though Ottawa remains more reluctant to do or say anything to upset China than most of its Asian and European allies, to maintain its self-respect it must do more than just wag a finger at Beijing since it was revealed that it was tracking many Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s daughter and some leading bureaucrats, businessmen and criminals. Though the U.S. and Australia clearly must lead in ensuring Kiribati’s future security and well-being, Canada could play a modest role, too.

Read more: 5 missing Indian nationals released by China amid standoff

On one of its biannual Pacific patrols, the Royal Canadian Navy could send a frigate to Kiribati on a goodwill visit. Canada could also burnish its vaunted green credentials by providing funding and technical assistance to the impoverished island statelet to help it manage the potentially existential effects of global warming.


Citing anonymous government sources, the Toronto Star floated the idea last week that a major shift in Canada’s Indo-Pacific policy was in the works.

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Canadian diplomats tell me that they have been asked to develop what is being described as an Asian policy. However, planning is still at such an early, initial stage that nothing will be ready for the government’s consideration for many months and quite probably not before the next federal election, should it take place any time between next week’s Throne Speech and next spring.

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The sudden disclosure of preliminary discussions about a change in direction could be a reaction to a series of recent polls that show a large majority of Canadians want much less to do with China than the government does, and/or a response to Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s recent pledge to counter China’s ugly behaviour by seeking stronger partnerships with other countries in the Indo-Pacific.

With China up to no good in many different places, including India, Australia, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Japan, stifling free speech and human rights in Hong Kong and Muslim Xinjiang, and now demonstrably tracking thousands of Canadians citizens, the world has become wide awake to this growing danger.

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Ottawa must respond to Beijing’s many provocations with more than words of disappointment because along with climate change, what to do about China will likely be the defining challenge of the 21st century.

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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