What accounts for this sharp Canadian shift against China?
China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping reportedly twice rebuked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the recent G20 meeting in Bali.
The first rebuke reflected the Chinese leader’s unhappiness that the Trudeau government had recently accused Beijing of interfering in Canada’s internal affairs by secretly funding 11 candidates in its recent federal election. The second was in response to what Xi characterized as the leaking by the prime minister of an account of that earlier scolding to the press.
This episode raises a number of questions, for Canadians and non-Canadians alike.
First, what was really behind Xi’s rebuke of his Canadian counterpart? At first glance, of course, the explanation is simple. Xi was simply irritated with what a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson later characterized as Canada’s “condescending” approach to China.
But given Xi’s generally upbeat demeanor at the global gathering in Bali, and the relative triviality of Trudeau’s alleged misconduct, this explanation seems unpersuasive. Indeed, so disproportionate was the response to the purported misdeed, that most observers were quickly drawn to the conclusion that something else was behind the Chinese leader’s outburst.
And so there was.
On closer examination, Xi’s scolding of the Canadian prime minister appears less a reaction to some “condescending” comments or the leaking of the transcript of a private conversation than it was a pointed rebuke of Canada’s increasingly adversarial policy and rhetoric toward China.
Like most Western nations, until quite recently Canada’s relations with China were largely positive and mutually beneficial. Following China’s economic reforms in the 1980s, but especially during the heyday of globalization in the 1990s and early 2000s, Canadian policy toward China was one of constructive engagement. Bilateral commercial relations grew during this period to the point where China became Canada’s second most important trading partner, and diplomatic relations were largely friendly.
And if Ottawa was sometimes critical of Beijing’s human rights record during those years, that criticism tended to be muted — in part because of concerns that public denunciations would hurt trade, but largely because of the widely shared belief that economic integration would eventually lead to China’s political liberalization and that the problem would soon disappear.
But all that has changed. In recent years, Canada’s diplomatic relations with China have grown increasingly frosty, to the point where Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly’s publicly characterized China as an “increasingly disruptive global power” earlier this month, and where Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is calling on democracies like Canada to break with autocracies like China. This has been echoed on the economic front by efforts to force Chinese firms to divest their ownership stakes in Canadian companies that mine lithium and other increasingly in-demand minerals, and by calls for “friendshoring” manufacturing away from China and back to Europe and North America.
But this raises a second question: Why is Canada’s posture toward China shifting in ways that would provoke Xi to rebuke his Canadian counterpart at a major international gathering like the G-20?
At the most superficial level, of course, this shift can be explained by the ill feelings that have been growing since December 2018, when Beijing jailed Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians living in China, apparently in retaliation for Canada having arrested Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive at the request of the United States government.
But at a deeper, more structural, level Canada’s shifting China policy is an artifact of an age-old dynamic in international relations: balancing. Balancing, of course, is the tendency of a state or group of states, when dealing with a rising or increasingly assertive power, to take steps to make it more difficult for the more powerful state to impose its preferences on the weaker ones. And that is precisely what Canada, like many other middle powers — Australia comes most readily to mind — is doing today.
Canada clearly sees China as a growing threat and is aligning with other states that see the geopolitical situation through a similar lens.
This is compounded in the Canadian case by a long tradition of positioning itself on the world stage as what former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson, quoting William Wordsworth, once referred to as the “stern daughter of the voice of God” — that is, as the dour, moralizing sidekick of the United States. At least since the end of the Cold War, and arguably for much longer, Canada has had a history of berating states that are not members in good standing of the liberal cum “rules-based” international order.
With respect to China, this tendency was largely submerged during the so-called “two Michaels” episode, though it did peek through now and then. But now that that caution-inducing moment has passed, the country’s moralizing impulse has reemerged with a vengeance.
As a result of these compound imperatives, what we are now seeing is Ottawa attempting to frame a new China strategy, one that will strike a new balance between engagement and opposition. Couched always in moral terms — the very terms that prompted Xi to rebuke Canada for its condescending attitude — this new balance heavily favors opposition to China, even if that is bound to be tempered for some time yet by economic considerations and threats of retaliation on Beijing’s part.
And that, in turn, raises a third and final question: what, if anything, does the Canadian case tell us about what’s taking place on the world stage more broadly?
If nothing else, it tells us that the global West is at an inflection point. Faced with the growing systemic pressures to balance an increasingly assertive China, the West, along with other countries under similar pressures in the Indo-Pacific, have a choice to make. What sort of balancing strategy should that be?
On the one hand, Canada and others, including the United States, can opt for imprudent and maximalist balancing. They can choose to frame international politics as a titanic struggle between the forces of autocracy and democracy. They can set as the goal of their respective strategies as defending the (mythical) rules-based international order at all costs. They can seek to exhume and reanimate the tropes of “Cold War” and “containment” that many thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history with the end of America’s “long, twilight struggle” with the Soviet Union.
In other words, a strategy of maximum moralizing and limitless competition.
On the other hand, those same countries can choose a more prudent and restrained form of balancing. Such a strategy would involve denying China primacy in the Indo-Pacific, blunting Chinese efforts to assert its leadership regionally and globally, and preventing China from dominating the global commons, including not only the high seas, but space and cyber as well.
The goal of such a strategy would not be to uphold American primacy or to rebuild the so-called rules-based international order. Rather, eschewing the maximalism of both the Cold War and unipolar moment, its objective would merely be to forestall Chinese domination through the creation of a stable — and democracy-favoring— balance of power.
With all due respect to the stern daughter of the voice of God, let’s hope that other Western capitals reject the first option and embrace the second instead.
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