West's tense relationship with China expected to dominate Halifax security forum

How Western democracies deal with the conundrum that is China is expected to be a major focus of the annual Halifax International Security Forum, which convenes for the eleventh time this weekend in the Nova Scotia capital.

Several on the record — as well as off the record — sessions involving some of the world's leading geo-political experts, politicians and military officers are taken up examining the evolving international relationship with the emerging superpower.

The event comes as Beijing struggles to deal with increasingly violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and reacts with anger at the almost-unanimous passage this week of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Halifax conference will include the participation of Emily Lau, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong.

Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it increasingly clear that his country will no longer play second fiddle to the West over the long term.

"He is determined to make China second to none" by the 100th anniversary of Communist Party rule in the country by 2049, Tsang wrote in a forum paper, ahead of the conference.

China has been, he said, the biggest beneficiary of globalization, deeply integrating its economy with the rest of the world, including liberal democracies, which have benefited from the cheaper price of consumer goods.

"The United States and other democracies proactively supported this for decades, believing that helping China to develop would create a powerful middle class there, and nudge China towards democratization," Tsang wrote. "This has always been wishful thinking.

"In fact, Western efforts to encourage democracy are seen as a step towards revolution and seen as an 'existential threat.'"

We are seeing some of that playing out in Hong Kong, where Tsang said any effort to reverse or halt globalization will come with huge costs.

"Even an attempt at technologically decoupling China from the liberal democracies, such as excluding Huawei from 5G contracts would have negative implications, not only for Huawei and China but also for the economies and everyday life in liberal democracies," he wrote.

The U.S. has been leaning on its allies, including Canada, to ban Huawei technology from the rising 5G network, citing concerns about its relationship with Chinese intelligence services.

The Liberal government has postponed a decision on a ban until next year.

Canada, more than most, has felt the sting of Beijing's wrath in the tense standoff over the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is wanted by U.S. justice officials, and the retaliatory seizure of two Canadian citizens: former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor.

Future of the Arctic

Another marquee session at the forum will involve an examination of the future of the Arctic in an age of global warming. But here again, China appears.

In another forum paper, written to help frame the discussions, Thomas Axworthy, the secretary general of the InterAction Council of Former Heads of State and Government, writes about China's Arctic ambitions, despite being 7,000 kilometres removed from the region.

Beijing recently declared its intention to be a "near Arctic State," deepening its exploration and knowledge of the inhospitable wilderness.

"China has backed up the rhetoric with actions," said Axworthy, noting the country's eight scientific expeditions to the region and its construction of heavy icebreakers.

There will be a substantial delegation of U.S. lawmakers at the weekend forum, which will include an address by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Given the Ukraine connection to the unfolding impeachment drama of U.S. President Donald Trump, the forum could see a healthy dose of American politics this weekend.  

Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press