In recent articles, Sean Speer and Conrad Black argue cogently that Canada needs to get serious about identifying its national interests and building a proper foreign policy for reasons of economic growth and security. Speer says we risk being hard hit by fallout from the hardening rivalry between our first- and third-largest trading partners, the United States and China. I would add that while the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned over 33 million cases around the world and killed more than a million people, its effect on trade relations, and peaceful relations, between the world’s two largest military and economic powers has the potential to hurt not only Canadians but millions of others as well.
An assistant professor in public policy at the University of Toronto and a senior fellow for fiscal policy at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Speer notes that trade with the United States and China amounts to about 60 percent of the Canadian total, the balance being mostly with Europe and the United Kingdom. “We’re entering a period of renewed great power competition and Canada needs to be ready to defend and advance our national interests accordingly,” he writes.
In the bipolar world of American-Soviet rivalry from1945 to 1991, things were simpler though infused with greater danger, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The threat of nuclear annihilation and the importance of deterrence helped prime ministers Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson see that Canada’s national interest lay with the North Atlantic Treaty and the primacy of our friendships and geo-political relationships with Western Europe and the United States, which even then were our biggest trading partners.
When Prime Minister John Diefenbaker balked in 1962 at putting nuclear warheads on the Bomarc missiles Canada had agreed to place on our territory four years earlier as part of North American deterrence, this was an aberration in our foreign policy and a break with our long-standing national interest—unity with the United States on defence matters. President Kennedy was shocked, and it took Pearson to repair the damage.
When Pierre Trudeau became prime minister in 1968 and softened our traditional positions with communist China and the Soviet Union, this too was a foray of limited value, which Black has called his “fatuous placation of the communist powers.” It took Brian Mulroney to realign our national interest firmly with the United States, which he did with a brilliant and productive friendship with another Irishman, Ronald Reagan, leading not only to freer trade but a deal to clean up acid rain, which hasn’t been heard of since. As Reagan once said, he disappointed some of his own people to keep his pledge to his friend Mulroney. Like Pearson, Mulroney understood the importance of friendship in international affairs.
The collapse of the bipolar world was not the end of history, just the end of the latest epoch. The multi-polar reality which succeeded it fooled many in the West into thinking the national interest had undergone a sea change. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, convinced by civil servants of the advantages of increasing trade with an ascendant—and, it was hoped, eventually more open and pliant—China, promoted deeper trade with the country as recently as 2013. With Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor held captive in China today (wars have been fought over less), with Hong Kong’s autonomy in tatters, and with Beijing’s aggression and growing military might alarming the likes of Australia and Japan as well as the United States, we know the truth about the Chinese communist regime.
This was not always so. Forty years ago, China was taking a long-term view of its place as a central player in the world. It was patient. Partly this was because it was weak. Its economy then was about $300 billion in size, compared to $14 trillion last year, second only to the United States. Militarily China was also a midget compared to its power today.
In 1979 I did some research as a political science student at Brandon University for Dr. Leo Liu, whose father had fought with the Nationalists’ Chiang Kai-shek in the war which saw Mao Zedong’s communists prevail 30 years earlier. I was pleased to assist Dr. Liu with his paper “The Modernization of the Chinese Military,” which appeared in the September 1980 edition of Current History magazine. Dr. Liu (who had an elaborate security system in his home, rare at the time) was under no illusions about Beijing’s long-term intentions to dominate not only Asia but a larger portion of the world; he spoke to us about China’s proud history.
China’s vision, he said, kept it at the centre of the world. In numerous ways—from targeting Canadian and other politicians for Chinese influence, to stealing software and other industrial secrets, to Trojan horse institutes for spies and obscuring the truth about the pandemic’s spread—Beijing is revealing that realism in the ugliest Machiavellian sense is at the core of its strategy. This augurs dangerous days ahead.
Professors Hal Brands and Jake Sullivan wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine about the evidence of China’s growing threat: “There is the naval shipbuilding program, which put more vessels to sea between 2014 and 2018 than the total number of ships in German, Indian, Spanish, and British navies combined. There is Beijing’s bid to dominate high-tech industries that will determine the future distribution of economic and military power. … Not least, there is the fact that a country that formerly disguised its ambitions now asserts them openly. China has entered a ‘new era,’ Xi [Jinping, head of the Chinese Communist Party] announced in 2017, and must ‘take centre stage in the world.’”
Where does this leave Canada? Vulnerable. We are militarily weak (no destroyers or attack helicopters, four submarines, 71,500 active personnel in all services), fiscally depleted by profligate pandemic spending, and directionless. China has 2.183 million active personnel, half a million in reserve, 36 destroyers, 281 attack helicopters, 200 nuclear warheads, etc. Our defence is the United States.
Sean Speer is right—we need to snap out of our “collective stupor.” Narcissism is not a foreign policy. We need, first, to define our national interests in a serious public discussion. Canada, as Black says, can be a major power, in the same category as Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, partly by leading reform of the U.N. and other bodies, which we helped to create in the 1940s. At that time, however, we had just played a key role in helping win the Second World War. Things have changed, and little respect is due us today. Harper was right to strengthen our ties to Israel, but his coolness toward Barack Obama has become, under the Liberals, outright antipathy toward Donald Trump, and this is an error Pearson would never have made. Job No. 1 is to repair the bonds of friendship with our most important ally.
In an anarchic world, collective security means doing your share, and President Trump is correct in saying most NATO members, including Canada, have fallen short of their share for many years. Honourable governments fulfill their commitments. Let us also explore deeper relationships with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. It is not a safe world out there, and it’s long past time to stop dallying, as Speer and Black assert.
My fear is, it may be too late.
Brad Bird has an MA in International Relations (University of Manitoba) and is a columnist based in B.C. Since 1987 he has reported from various war zones, most recently eastern Ukraine for the Kyiv Post and other media.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.