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Training exercise kerfuffle shows how badly Canada’s China policy needs fixing

Click to play video: 'Amnesty International reports “disturbing and intensifying” pattern of Chinese interference in Canada' Amnesty International reports “disturbing and intensifying” pattern of Chinese interference in Canada
WATCH: (Aug. 11, 2020) Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada said during a special parliamentary committee meeting on Canada-China relations on Tuesday that the organization prepared two reports in the past three years documenting a “disturbing and intensifying” pattern of Chinese interference, threats and intimidation against activists and human rights defenders in Canada – Aug 11, 2020

One would be hard-pressed at the moment to think of a greater global adversary to Canada than China. As such, it seems like a no-brainer that any sort of joint military exercise with China should be off the table.

That now appears to be the prevailing attitude in Ottawa, but it’s lamentable that this wasn’t the obvious consensus a long time ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

It was revealed this past week by The Globe and Mail that officials at Global Affairs Canada pushed back last year after Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance decided to cancel a joint training exercise between Canadian and Chinese soldiers at CFB Petawawa.

Read more: Canadian soldiers no longer training Chinese troops, defence minister says

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Gen. Vance had apparently been urged by the U.S. to cancel the exercise, but Global Affairs officials were concerned that Beijing would view it as retaliation for the arrest and detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

This past week also marked two full years of captivity for the Two Michaels with no apparent end in sight. It is abundantly clear that China is engaged in hostage diplomacy and the idea that Canada would consider some sort of reprisal hardly seems controversial. Not welcoming members of the People’s Liberation Army onto Canadian soil — let alone a Canadian military base — doesn’t seem all that provocative under the circumstances. What’s far more alarming in all of this is the lack of concern for these two Canadian citizens.

There was no shortage of fingerpointing in Ottawa once the details of this story came to light. As it turned out, both the Liberals and the Conservatives had valid points. Ultimately, though, it’s a sad commentary on both parties.

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There is much to fault the Liberal government for when it comes to dealing with China. On this issue, it seems quite clear that absent Gen. Vance’s intervention, this training exercise would have gone ahead last year — even though our own close allies were clearly very concerned.

The Liberals, though, have correctly noted that the military exercise was a product of an agreement signed in 2013 under the previous Conservative government. This doesn’t let the Liberals off the hook, however, since they saw fit to leave everything in place despite increasing escalation on China’s part in recent years.

The Conservatives obviously cannot escape the fact that they are the ones who oversaw this agreement with China, but they’ve insisted that a lot has changed since 2013. This is arguably true, but the Conservatives have remained silent on this agreement up until this point.

At what point did they actually conclude that this agreement should no longer be in force and why did they not voice that opinion at that time? Did they forget that it existed prior to being reminded about it in recent days?

Read more: Canadian officials say two Michaels not tried by China, citing translation error

Perhaps we should appreciate that both parties now see our relationship with China in a much different light and that there is something closer to agreement on viewing China as a belligerent adversary. Ideally, we would get to a bipartisan consensus on this question and maybe that has to involve letting bygones be bygones when it comes to past misjudgments and missteps.

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It was definitely a step in the right direction to hear Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan say, “We will always stand up for Canadians who are arbitrarily detained. This is one of the reasons why we actually stopped our training with the Chinese.”

But we need more than just platitudes. The Liberals have promised a new China policy framework, but we’ve yet to see it. It’s certainly fair to fault the government for dragging its feet on a matter that deserves a much greater level of urgency.

It’s all well and good that common sense has prevailed when it comes to joint military exercises, but clearly, we still have a ways to go in adjusting our China policies to reflect today’s realities.

Rob Breakenridge is host of ‘Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge’ on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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