The reality is that Canada has painfully little leverage
Freeing the “two Michaels” was the hard part.
Now, the hard choices facing Canada will only get harder.
We’re not making it any easier by flagellating ourselves and goading our government’s diplomats with facile critiques. There are no easy answers to the hard questions people keep asking:
With the release of our two citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, how to win freedom for other incarcerated Canadians? How to end genocide in Xinjiang? How to free Tibet? How to defend Taiwan? How to restore Hong Kong’s lawful autonomy?
The underlying premise — sometimes sincere, oftentimes cynical — is that Canada must go beyond appeasement and acquiescence to fearless confrontation. And the storyline, which climaxed on the election campaign trail, goes something like this:
We may be a middle power, but we must cut a superpower down to size. By punching above our weight, we can bend Beijing to our will.
With that kind of blinkered overreach we are more likely to swing and miss.
The idea that we must summon our economic heft and diplomatic influence is a historical Canadian conceit from a bygone era.
Yes, China once wanted our wheat, craved our diplomatic recognition and now thirsts for our oil (or anyone’s energy). Today, the reality is that we have painfully little leverage when Beijing holds all the economic cards — and plays for keeps by kidnapping at will.
Yet two misleading narratives have emerged in recent days, casting a cloud over the campaign to free the two Michaels.
The first myth is that the federal government and much of the media have been blinded by bigotry all these years in pressing the case of the two “white” Michaels, while ostensibly ignoring the case of Husseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen and Uyghur Muslim who has languished in Chinese detention far longer as a political prisoner.
To be clear, Kovrig and Spavor were taken hostage as retaliation for the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou — and held as ransom explicitly to win her return. Caught in the middle of an extradition and deportation process triggered by an American arrest warrant, Canada had someone China wanted.
Ottawa’s diplomatic demands didn’t make China blink. Only by pressuring the Americans to do a deal did Canada get its quid pro quo — Meng for two Michaels.
Our two hostages were bargaining chips, which is why there is no useful analogy to the case of Celil. He was not forsaken by the government nor forgotten by the media when China detained him nearly 15 years ago — we just didn’t have another Huawei executive that China wanted back.
In fact, the Star and the Globe and Mail were among the media that covered the case of this political refugee from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, who was granted asylum in Canada.
Perhaps he believed the new Canadian passport he obtained after gaining citizenship in 2005 might protect him once he returned to Central Asia, but Celil was arrested in Uzbekistan in 2006 at China’s behest and promptly handed over.
He was not detained to pressure Canada diplomatically (like the two Michaels), but to punish him personally. Bear in mind that Beijing does not recognize the renunciation of its citizenship by political exiles, which undercut Canadian consular claims.
The second myth clouding our China policy is that Canada somehow missed the boat on a three-way secret agreement this month to deploy nuclearpowered submarines to Australia with American technology and British know-how.
The hole in this theory is that France — a far bigger player than Canada — was blindsided by the deal. Australia wanted to get out of a problematic procurement of French dieselpowered subs, and so it secretly approached the Americans to access nuclear propulsion technology now used by the British.
It’s true that Canada is saddled with obsolete and noisy diesel subs of little use in Arctic waters. But the notion that our leaders would forgo a public debate on long-range nuclear subs before signing a secret last-minute deal on an Australian procurement timeline doesn’t add up.
That didn’t stop Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole from demanding in the campaign’s final days that we hurriedly sign up on subs. He was echoed, improbably, by a blustery Jagmeet Singh, who jettisoned his NDP’s anti-nuke (and old anti-NATO) ethos to argue that we should have joined a secret nuclear deal with the Americans to help us free the two Michaels.
“Canada should have been part of the pact,” the NDP leader said with a straight face. “This pact seems like a potential avenue to apply more pressure, but Canada was absent.”
Australia’s proximity and vulnerability to China’s bullying tactics are different from ours, just as its inclinations and calculations are dissimilar. They lock up refugees, we don’t; they went to war in Vietnam and Iraq, we didn’t.
No one is calling for complacency on Canadian diplomacy. The challenge is to leverage and amplify our voice by joining multilateral alliances that fit, rather than wasting our breath on fitful and unilateral gestures.
For example, why is Canada still absent from the new Quad alliance of Asia-Pacific democracies — India, Australia, America and Japan — arrayed against China, and which convened just last week at the White House? And how will Canada respond to competing bids from Beijing and Taiwan to join the exclusive club that is the Trans-Pacific trade partnership?
To be sure, Canada will soon tell Huawei to take its hi-tech 5G gear and get lost, disqualifying it from our communications infrastructure as other close allies have already done. It was only a matter of waiting for the two Michaels to get out of harm’s way.
Just as everyone has an opinion on the Middle East, all Canadians now have an argument about China. But if we get bogged down in imaginary battles over consular roads not taken, and nuclear submarines not built, we will lose sight of the robust China policy we need now — anchored in international reality, not domestic fantasy and political sophistry.