Liberals' tougher stance on China part of broader strategy to challenge communist state on matters of international law

Canadian and other foreign diplomats stand outside the Intermediate People's Court where Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Spavor were tried last week. The display of international support for the two men has further emboldened Canadian officials in those efforts, a senior government official said.

OTTAWA — Recent moves by the Liberal government to sharpen its criticism of China and level sanctions against Chinese officials marks a shift in policy for Ottawa, part of a broader strategy to intensify pressure on the communist state on matters of international law.

One senior government official with knowledge of the issue says the shift comes as top officials “take stock” of their posture toward China, particularly following the hasty trials of two Canadians detained by Chinese authorities, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

The recent display of international support for the two men has further emboldened Canadian officials in those efforts, the person said, as Western allies form a united front against China. A more general recognition that China’s own foreign policy aims have shifted in recent years also prompted the change in Ottawa.

“China has changed,” said the person, who spoke to the

National Post

on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “As China has become more and more aggressive in its language and in its tactics, we have also had to adapt our approach to match the reality of the situation.”

Global Affairs Canada on Monday announced it was imposing sanctions on four Chinese officials and one company, citing the “dire human rights situation in Xinjiang” following the “mass arbitrary detention” of over one million Uyghurs. It marked the first time Canada has imposed sanctions on China since state police killed masses of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

At the same time, comments in recent days by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau about China have been harsher than usual, albeit still largely in line with previous talking points.

It remains unclear whether slightly tougher rhetoric will lead to more sanctions or other material policy shifts. The senior official said the Liberals are currently contemplating their position toward China, and last week recalled Canada’s ambassador to China Dominic Barton in part to discuss how Ottawa should proceed.

“It was time to sit down and take stock and move the conversation forward,” the source said.

The person said Barton was recalled before the trials dates of Kovrig and Spavor were announced, and dismissed outright any speculation that Barton might be removed from his posting.

The shift in tone comes as Trudeau has faced criticism for appearing soft on China, declining to offer anything more than boilerplate responses when Chinese authorities detained Kovrig and Spavor, or when China slapped tariffs on various Canadian exports.

In an interview on CBC’s Power & Politics program on Monday, Garneau was more critical of China than in previous statements, saying international support for the two detained Canadians is growing, and that “China will have to realize that it can’t sweep it under the carpet.”

“That is the message that we’re carrying to China, that you cannot use coercive diplomacy to achieve your ends,” he said.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, former member of the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology and a senior official in the Department of Finance from 1994 to 2004, said the minister’s comments mark a sharp departure from just three weeks ago when the federal government launched its “arbitrary detention” initiative, which now has 61 signatories.

“At the time, Garneau wouldn’t even use the word China,” McCuaig-Johnston said.

“Clearly the tone has changed, and the Canadian government has developed a backbone. But we’ll have to see what comes next.”

The decision by Ottawa to impose sanctions comes as public polls suggest a sizeable majority of Canadians support a stronger opposition toward China.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has been heavily critical of the Liberal record on China, and has for months proposed placing sanctions on Chinese officials as a form of retaliation. The recent move by Ottawa could remove a main distinguishing factor between O’Toole’s platform and that of the Liberals.

“We could be looking at posturing relating to an upcoming election,” said Charles Burton, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “The Conservatives have made a reset with China their number one foreign policy plank, due to public demand by most Canadians.”

Kovrig and Spavor were arrested shortly after Canadian authorities detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, on a U.S. extradition request for bank fraud in December 2018. The arrest of the two men is widely viewed as retaliation for Meng, and Chinese authorities often cite the Meng arrest in rebuttal to Canada’s claims about Kovrig and Spavor.

American officials under the Biden administration have promised to press for the release of the two men as if they were U.S. citizens, part of a push by U.S. President Joe Biden to introduce a more united front against the country, unlike the one-on-one approach under the Trump administration.

“We join our partners in calling on Beijing to immediately release the two arbitrarily detained Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig,” U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken said on Twitter Tuesday. “Human beings are not bargaining chips.”

Chinese officials, meanwhile, pushed back against Canada’s decision to join the U.S., United Kingdom and European Union in levelling sanctions against China.

“If the EU makes erroneous decisions based solely on the lies of ill-intentioned anti-China forces, then it shows clearly this is nothing but political manipulation,” the spokesperson for China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said on Twitter Tuesday. “Should the EU insist on taking wrong actions detrimental to Chinese interests, we will react with a firm hand.”

The foreign ministry also pushed back against claims that Western allies somehow form a majority opinion on the world stage. The EU, U.S., U.K. and Canada combined accounts for a mere 11 per cent of the global population, the office said.

“They cannot represent the international community.”

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques