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When The Elephants Quarrel, Canada Faces The Music

Canada, and more so the Trudeau administration, wants to have the cake and eat it too! She preaches Saudi Arabia about respecting human rights but is not averse to selling weapons worth $15 billion, which Riyadh “may have used… not just to wage war in Yemen, but also to crack down on its own civilians” (The Washington Post op-ed). Canada wishes to be seen as a champion of democracy and rule of law, yet nurtures Khalistani separatists on its soil, in pursuit of vote bank politics. She wants to have a FTA/CEPA with China and India but tries to bring in extraneous (even if pertinent) issues like clean growth, climate change and gender equality, through the back door.

However, this time around, Ottawa appears to have badly miscalculated the intensity of Chinese backlash when it decided on December 1 to arrest Ms Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei, at American behest, for circumventing Iran-related sanctions. Notwithstanding Canadian protestations to the contrary, the arrest was a political decision, which had to be cleared at the very top.

China, never known for moderation, reacted with fury, administering dire warnings, arresting three Canadians in retaliation and sentencing another Canadian national Robert Schellenberg to death, on charges of drug-running. Consular access to them has been severely restricted and they are confined in harsh prison conditions while Ms Meng has been released on $10-million bail and lives in great comfort in Vancouver, save for an electronic monitoring anklet. So much for Trudeau government’s policy of courting and prioritising ties with China!

But what about the famed U.S.-Canada partnership? “PM Justin Trudeau acted so meek and mild during our @G7 meetings only to give a news conference after I left saying that, “US Tariffs were kind of insulting” and he “will not be pushed around.” Very dishonest & weak” – tweeted the irrepressible American President on June 10, 2018, soon after flying out of Quebec. And that is precisely Canada’s angst and challenge. Daily trade volume between the two huge neighbours is around 2.5 billion Canadian dollars (over 78% of Canada’s global total), their economies and societies are intertwined, yet Ottawa continues to chafe at Washington’s neglect and crave its attention.

Canada knew early on that the advent of Trump, with his mercantilist approach and propensity to shoot from the hip, would be bad news. He has been unrelenting in badgering Canada (and Mexico) with the twin objectives of securing better trade deals and signalling a muscular intent to China. He had assumed office promising to scrap NAFTA if it was not re-negotiated to his satisfaction. To be fair, Trump had initially offered a side deal on NAFTA to Canada. Misjudging his resolve, Trudeau had shunned it, only to be left out in the cold by Mexico and the United States.

On August 30 last year, when the three neighbours were in the thickest of gruelling discussions, Trump’s off-the-record remarks to Bloomberg at the Oval office—that he is not making any compromises at all with Canada and that “it’s going to be so insulting they’re (Ottawa) not going to be able to make a deal”—caused a storm in Canada but he remained unfazed. Canadians are baffled by the current political climate in the United States, where trash-talking your friends and bending the truth are now routine in the era of “Make America Great Again”, observes the USA Today.

Getting back to the Huawei row, Canada finds itself floundering. As she was struggling to contain the damage, President Trump ripped away her fig leaf about Canadian judicial independence, by telling Reuters on December 11 that he would be willing to intervene in the case if it was in the best interest of Americans—”Whatever’s good for this country, I would do”.

As the matter drags on, Chinese tactics of twisting the Canadian arm but making conciliatory overtures towards U.S. are in full display, providing a valuable case study of Beijing’s geopolitics. After all, ‘Kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ is, indeed, an old Chinese idiom. A well-known analyst writing for the Japan Times presciently remarked last month: “When a nation pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China only ups the ante. Deference to China usually invites bullying, while standing up to it draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and shore up cooperation”.

Meanwhile, Canadian Ambassador to Beijing John McCallum, a veteran Liberal politician whose wife and three daughters-in-law are of Chinese origin, was forced to resign last week. In statements made to the media he had said that Ms Meng “has some strong arguments that she can make before a judge” and flagged points that could weaken U.S. attempts to extradite her. He went on to suggest that it would be “great for Canada” if U.S. dropped its extradition request.

While the concluding chapter of the saga is yet to unfold, a few pertinent pointers are quite evident. One, the ball squarely lies in Washington’s court and Ottawa is more a bystander caught in the crossfire. Two, sooner or later, U.S. and China are bound to resolve the Huawei spat, but their core disputes and divergences are here to stay. Three, there would be less cooperation and more contention between the two powers as they jockey for global technological and political leadership. Four, Canada is a loser twice over, having damaged ties with China without securing any brownie points from the Trump White House.

Canada’s ‘The Globe and Mail’ aptly captured the mood in editorializing: “The case of Meng Wanzhou has torpedoed the Trudeau government’s China policy. At the same time, it has also sunk China’s Canada policy. Call it a win-win”.

(The author is former Indian High Commissioner to Canada. Views are personal)