OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is taking aim at what he describes as China’s unpredictability, refusal to play by the rules and expanding footprint around the world, saying those are among the “significant” concerns Canada and its allies have with Beijing.
The comments come amid growing alarm over China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, which has led Canadian military commanders and others to increasingly focus on what is being described as the next great power competition.
The last great power competition saw Canada and its NATO allies face off against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Sajjan declined in an interview with The Canadian Press to describe China as an adversary even as he emphasized the importance of talk and diplomacy in dealing with the Chinese government.
Yet the defence minister was also quick to list the many ways in which China’s recent actions have set off red flags in Ottawa and other western capitals, underscoring the importance of possessing a credible military response should it be required.
Those actions include the continued detention of two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest in 2018 of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is wanted in the United States on fraud charges.
While the dispute has had a serious impact on Canada-China relations, Sajjan suggested the arrest and detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor also spoke to broader concerns about China flaunting international rules, norms and treaties.
“The unpredictability that China has been showing the world — not just to Canada — is giving all of us significant concern,” he said.
“When a country arrests two Canadians, it is not a message to Canada, it is a message to the rest of the world is saying: ‘This is how we will do diplomacy.’”
Sajjan, who has previously described the detention of the two Michaels as “hostage diplomacy,” also flagged concerns how China is spreading its influence around the world.
The Chinese government has been increasingly assertive in its own neighbourhood, staking claim to the South China Sea and other waterways while taking a harder line with Taiwan and cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong.
Yet Sajjan also expressed apprehension over how China has been spreading money around to different parts of world, providing financial assistance to governments and investing in countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“We look at China's expansion into other parts of the world right now as a concern, based on how they're dealing with smaller nations in terms of how they provide the support that has created this economic kind of dependency,” he said.
Smaller countries aren’t the only ones struggling with questions about how to remain independent from China without hurting their economies, with Australia and even Canada also looking at ways to diversify its trade away from the Asian giant.
Canada’s relations with China also previously included some military co-operation, with Chinese troops allowed to observe Canadian counterparts as they conducted winter warfare training and other exercises.
Sajjan confirmed that such co-operation was suspended after the two Michaels were arrested — despite opposition from Global Affairs Canada, according to documents accidentally released through access to information to several media outlets this month.
Military commanders, meanwhile, have increasingly been turning to the threat posed by China as well as Russia after decades of focusing on terrorism and other low-level conflicts in places such Afghanistan and Iraq.
That has led to a renewed focus on replacing the military's aging weapons with state-of-the-art kit as well as new capabilities in space and cyberspace.
While the minister emphasized the importance of diplomacy in dealing with China, he also underscored that Canada and its allies need to be on the same page when it comes to Beijing — which includes presenting a credible threat to prevent Chinese aggression.
“The military is there to making sure that we're always prepared send a strong message of deterrence,” he said. “But this is always in support of diplomacy.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press