National Post (Latest Edition)

Red lines will become clearer

- John Ivison

It is a happy coincidenc­e for the Liberals that just as new Conservati­ve Leader Erin O’toole is blasting the government’s weak China policy, they are getting set to launch a new, tougher approach to dealing with Beijing.

The reframed China policy has been in the works since François-philippe Champagne was appointed foreign affairs minister last year and is due to emerge within the next few weeks.

For the Liberals, a firmer line on China can’t come quickly enough.

Justin Trudeau has portrayed Canada’s policy on China as being “steadfast and strong, saying clearly in actions and words that randomly arresting Canadians doesn’t give you leverage over the government of Canada.”

The reality is the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor has done just that.

The middle- ground approach chides China for its mistreatme­nt of its minorities and crushing freedom of speech in Hong Kong but does not risk antagonizi­ng Beijing — a consequenc­e that the government believes might jeopardize the release of the two Michaels, not to mention $23 billion in exports and the status of 160,000 Chinese students in Canada.

However, O’ Toole’s victory, and his focus on the China issue, has presented voters with a contrast to a policy of reliance on patient internatio­nal pressure that is yet to yield results.

One of O’ Toole’s signature policies during the Conser vative leadership contest was a harder attitude towards the Communist regime, including responding to the continued imprisonme­nt of Kovrig and Spavor with sanctions and asset freezes directed at party officials; a crackdown on perceived intimidati­on of Chinese- Canadians; a ban on Huawei’s involvemen­t in 5G technology, and, closer ties in the Indo- Pacific region with allies like Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India.

In his maiden speech as leader in the House of Commons on Wednesday, O’toole said he believes in free trade but “the prize of market outcomes is too high when it comes to the Communist regime in Beijing.”

He criticized the “ethnic cleansing” of Uyghur Muslims and “the establishm­ent of a police state in Hong Kong.”

“Do we ignore the ‘re-education camps’ in western China to grow our exports? Or do we open new markets, work with our allies and rebalance global trade to show the Communist Party in Beijing that our values are not for sale?” he asked.

According to public opinion polling, O’toole’s view accords more closely with that of most Canadians than the one offered by the Liberal government. An Ipsos poll in the summer indicated a strong majority of 82 per cent of respondent­s who believe Canada should rely on less trade with China.

There are concerns about the consequenc­es of “de- coupling” — only 38 per cent think we should sever ties completely. But Canadians have soured on China much more quickly than their government. Just one in seven Canadians look favourably on China, according to an Angus Reid Institute poll, down from one in two in 2017.

The new policy framework will inevitably reflect that new reality. “China has changed, the world has changed, ergo our foreign policy to China must adapt,” said one senior government source.

There is an acknowledg­ment inside government that the current balancing act is not working.

In future, it will be clearer what the red lines are, the source said.

Many of the actions that might flow from a new framework will be complement­ary to what allies like the U. K, Australia and New Zealand are doing — for example, when it comes to taking new immigrants from Hong Kong.

One area not included in the new policy framework is the Investment Canada Act, which was toughened during COVID to subject foreign investment­s in this country to “enhanced scrutiny” to prevent “opportunis­tic investment behaviour” by stateowned enterprise­s. That default position to reject investment is set for review once the economy recovers but a tougher stance could see it become a fixture, at least when it comes to China.

However, Canadians should not expect a radical departure on the thorniest questions like the future of Taiwan, which will continue to reflect “regional realities”, the source said.

Canada does have a warship taking part in U. S.Japanese naval exercises, as part of a demonstrat­ion of the American commitment to defend Taiwan but the Trudeau government has been reluctant to deepen its ties with Taipei.

The reason for that, of course, is that this re-branded policy is much more about Erin O’toole than it is about Xi Jinping.

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