Although it’s not yet clear if China will retaliate beyond strong condemnation of Canada’s decision, experts say the possibility exists that the risk has increased for Canadian travellers and businesses in China.
“This will be seen as a slap in the face to the Chinese government,” said Christopher Parsons, a global security and cybersecurity researcher with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
The decision was also largely expected, even though it took years for the government to act. Canada is the last of the Five Eyes allies — which include the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand — to restrict or ban the Chinese telecom giants over national security concerns.
Repeated delays in a decision by the government led Canadian telecommunications players to ink deals with other technology companies over the last three years, effectively freezing Huawei out of the market in the absence of a formal government decision.
Yet China’s history of aggressive diplomacy and retaliation against several countries, including Canada, has observers concerned.
“There’s a risk of retaliation in this case, but it is still very uncertain” if it will happen, said Kristen Hopewell, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.
“China likes to talk about respecting national sovereignty … and we can only hope that China recognizes that Canada has made this decision in the interest of its national security, and that it will respect Canada’s sovereignty.”
Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador to Canada, warned in December that Canada would “pay a price for their erroneous deeds and actions” if it were to ban Huawei.
A spokesperson for China’s embassy in Canada said late Thursday the alleged security concerns were a “pretext for political manipulation” and accused Canada of working with the United States to suppress Chinese companies.
“China will make a comprehensive and serious assessment of this incident and take all necessary measures to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies,” the spokesperson added.
Relationship already strained
Canada most recently saw such retaliation when Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were imprisoned in China mere days after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on U.S. charges in December 2018.
A nearly three-year battle of wills played out between the two countries, with Canada intent to honour a U.S. request for Meng to be extradited on fraud charges, while Kovrig and Spavor were charged and found guilty of espionage.
China repeatedly insisted the two Canadians were not being held in retaliation over Meng’s arrest. But just hours after Meng secured a deal to drop the U.S. charges and flew home to China, Kovrig and Spavor were released and boarded a flight back to Canada.
Ottawa has said the delay on the 5G decision was partly out of concern for Kovrig and Spavor while they were still in prison.
Beijing has also reacted angrily to Canada’s continued criticism of China’s human rights record.
Canada has come out strongly against Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, where a new national security law has clamped down on pro-democracy protests and media. China has also exerted influence on Hong Kong’s government and election laws.
Last year, Parliament passed a motion formally recognizing China’s treatment of its ethnic Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province as a genocide. The Liberal cabinet abstained from the vote, with Trudeau calling the genocide term a “loaded word” that should be used carefully.
Canada also joined a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, allowing athletes to compete but not sending any government representatives to the Games in protest of those human rights issues.
Ongoing trade tensions have also strained the Canada-China relationship, including long-standing tariffs on Canadian canola.
Although Ottawa announced on Wednesday that those tariffs are being lifted, experts say that doesn’t mean the relationship was on the road to recovery.
“This was mostly due to the tight canola market caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said Yves Tiberghien, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. “You can’t say that was an altruistic decision. They had no other choice.”
Tiberghien says the Ukraine war and the government’s focus on maintaining its “zero-COVID” policy — which has led to widespread lockdowns in Shanghai and Beijing to curb the virus’ spread — means the Huawei and ZTE bans may not register to Beijing beyond angry statements by the foreign ministry.
“There have been signals that this decision has been coming for years,” he said. “This will not be a shock to the system. If anything it will be a ripple in the bigger picture.”
Concerns for Canadians abroad
Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino would not directly answer questions about what the announcement would mean for Canadians in China, or if the government had a message for those Canadians.
“Let me be clear, this is about Canada, this is about security,” Champagne told reporters on Thursday.
Canada’s travel advisory for China currently says travellers should “exercise a high degree of caution” in the country “due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
“The decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the traveller. The Government of Canada closely monitors safety and security conditions abroad, 24 hours/day, seven days/week, using a wide array of information sources. Travel Advice and Advisories are updated promptly to respond to events that may affect the personal safety and security of Canadians abroad,” Marilyne Guèvremont, as a spokesperson from Global Affairs Canada, told Global News in a statement Friday.
“Since January 2019, Global Affairs Canada has been advising Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws. Consular officials stand ready to provide consular assistance to any Canadians who may require it in China.”
Mendicino also wouldn’t say if he is concerned about the potential for retaliatory cyberattacks.
“Canada continues to be very vigilant about the ever-evolving threats to our national security,” he said.
Parsons says Canada must quickly follow the Huawei and ZTE bans with a “comprehensive, meaningful and actionable framework” outlining the government’s foreign policy approach to China, including countering further security threats.
“If it doesn’t show that Canada is producing or, better yet, providing that framework alongside this, then frankly, the government has failed,” he said.
“How are we going to secure 5G generally? How are we going to develop cybersecurity defenses against supply chain constraints from China generally? How are we going to engage in financial relations with China given some of its coercive capabilities, generally?
“If we don’t have that, then what have we been doing?”
— with files from Amanda Connolly