The baseline was hug a PLA soldier and ride off on a unicorn into a trust-based sunset together. It wasn’t that the Canadian government didn’t know what was going on in China.
Alexandria, VA: A few days ago, I got an email from an American friend that read: “Canada is turning into our Nepal.” He included a link to an article about how Canada had allowed members of the PLA to observe the Canadian military’s winter survival training on a Canadian military base in 2018.
His point was Canada, my homeland, was becoming dangerously compliant to China.
The report was based on a freedom of information request by Canadian journalist Ezra Levant of Rebel News. Mr Levant had asked the Canadian government for information on a specific Canada-China military engagement. What he got back was 34 pages of lists, letters and emails detailing a specific moment in Canadian bureaucratic history, when the Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces (DND/CAF) was tussling with Canada’s equivalent of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Global Affairs Canada (GAC), over whether to engage with the PLA.
Not only did Mr Levant get more than he asked for, the bits that would normally be redacted by being blacked out were only greyed out, and so were legible. Someone wanted the story to be known. Mr Levant posted the whole thing online at TheChinaFiles.com.
Most of the correspondence is from early 2019. That was a tense time in Canada-China relations. On 1 December 2018, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou in response to an extradition request by the US. Meng was an executive at Huawei, and the daughter of the founder. On 10 December, China arrested two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, now known as the “Two Michaels”, in what is widely considered an overt case of hostage “diplomacy”.
The question for Ottawa was how to respond. The newly released documents show a clear division between foreign policy and defence.
Even before what the documents euphemistically refer to as the “consular cases”, Canada was on a numbskullian path in regards to China. According to the documents, in February 2018, “GAC provided DND Foreign Policy guidance titled ‘Canada’s Priorities for Security and Defence Engagement in the Asia-Pacific’… The document encourages DND/CAF to pursue bilateral cooperation with the PLA, as this helps Canada to build a positive, trust-based, but low risk relationship with China on defence and security issues… Such DND/CAF engagements with the PLA are intended to encourage transparency and respect for global norms, and to build mutual trust, particularly in the areas of HADR.”
So, that was the baseline. Hug a PLA soldier and ride off on a unicorn into a trust-based sunset together. Also note “Asia-Pacific”, China’s preferred term, not ‘Indo-Pacific’, the one in common usage by the US, India and others by then.
It wasn’t that the Canadian government didn’t know what was going on in China. Other sections in the document detail China’s use of facial recognition, torture of Uyghurs and media intimidation.
It also reports that China doesn’t like certain sorts of international pressure. The Canadians learned that from an Indian in a discussion about China’s shifting its position on Masood Azhar. According to the document: “The India diplomat believes that China’s status as the sole holdout on the UNSC rather than concern for Indian criticism or China-India relations, was the determining factor in China’s decision to reverse its position on the listing question.”
Another note states that China likes to apply pressure bilaterally. In a report on the Belt and Road Forum meeting, Canada is told by a French diplomat that China likes “multibilateralism”, a “hub-and-spoke model by which China negotiates bilaterally with a host of partners under a largely symbolic umbrella organization”.
So, the diplomats know that China is a bad place, that it can be susceptible to certain sorts of international pressure and that Beijing thinks it has the upper hand in bilateral engagements. So, did Canada’s diplomats try to publicly rally its allies in defence of its two kidnapped citizens? Not exactly.
Most of the documents relate to what happened when the DND/CAF unilaterally cancelled a 2019 planned visit by more PLA troops to observe more winter training. The Canadian diplomats hit the roof, and tried to find out why they were cancelled. Was it because of the “consular cases”, US pressure, or Five Eyes pressure (an intelligence sharing partnership between the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK)?
The fact that it could just be because some in the Canadian military didn’t like the idea of training the PLA to get better at fighting Canada and her allies (including India) didn’t seem to occur.
The resulting investigation concluded that while the decision to cancel the winter training “was taken following Ms. Meng’s provisional arrest, we understand that it was driven principally by concerns voiced by the U.S. that the training could result in unintended and undesired knowledge transfer to the PLA”.
Another note mentions that the DND/CAF desire to “dis-engage” from the PLA is perhaps related “to a desire to be fully aligned with [Five Eyes], particularly the U.S., whose approach has shifted under the Trump Administration. From what I can tell, DND/CAF is also lukewarm about engaging on peacekeeping and the potential security implications.”
This concern over what looks like “peaceful” operations was echoed in another report that read, “In close alignment with Canada’s Five Eyes partners, DND continues to ensure that bilateral defence engagement with China are balanced with security concerns and do not provide the PLA with any operational capability enhancements, including in areas such as Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster response.”
So the Canadian military, backed by a newly resolute US administration, stood its ground. And the diplomats knew that allies working together to stand up to China is a good way to get results, for example the release of the Two Michaels. So, what did they do?
In a Memorandum for Action to Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, marked SECRET for Canadian Eyes Only, this is the recommendation engagement with China:
“[U]nilateral decisions to postpone and/or cancel previously agreed DND/CAF cooperation with the PLA risk being interpreted by China or others in an unintended (and unhelpful) way. They could also damage Canada’s long-term defence and security relationship with China.
“Should DND/CAF decide to delay/cancel previously agreed initiatives for other reasons (e.g. concerns about unintended knowledge transfer), this should be paired with careful communications strategies to avoid becoming inadvertently linked to the current situation.”
And, in the concluding letter, Ian Shugart, then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs directed:
“Canada does not want to be the partner that is reducing normal bilateral interactions. It is essential that GAC be consulted before any activities are cancelled/postponed, particularly initiatives previously agreed to between DND/CAF and the People’s Liberation Army. At this time, CAG would not support postponing/cancelling peacekeeping training.”
Since then, Mr Shugart has been promoted. He is currently Canada’s top civil servant.
Meanwhile a grassroots campaign has been launched to send Christmas cards to the Two Michaels addressed to local Chinese embassies and consulates. The idea is that it will let the CCP know people still care about them, and possibly shame them into action. Maybe those cards should be addressed to Canadian embassies instead.
Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.