We need a made-in-Canada China policy

Canadian analysis and Canadian interests must be at the heart of our China policy

  • On 24 September 2021 Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou struck a deal with US prosecutors in a “deferred prosecution agreement”, whereby she did not plead guilty to the charges against her but admitted “some wrongdoing”.
  • Later on the same day, the court in BC handling the Meng extradition hearing halted the proceedings, having been informed by the Americans that the matter was settled.
  • Still on the same day, and within hours of Meng boarding a flight to China, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor had boarded a plane for Canada, after nearly three years of detention in China. –  Key Events Global News

In the wake of this episode, which has seen Canada’s relations with China, its second largest trading partner after the USA (albeit a distant second), plummet to possibly its lowest ebb ever, experts have called for everything from renewed diplomatic engagement — with our eyes wide open — to ending our “strategic pussyfooting” and opting for an Australian-style policy of open confrontation.

Launch a new comprehensive Asia-Pacific strategy to deepen diplomatic, economic, and defence partnerships in the region

The Liberals, for their part, in their election platform promised they would develop a comprehensive strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. China was only mentioned specifically in relation to “combatting authoritarianism and foreign interference” (p. 68).

Nothing excuses the Chinese hostage taking of the two Michaels, but if we are to learn from this experience, then we have to face up to its cause, the American geo-political and economic competition with China, in respect of which taking down leading Chinese technology companies is one tool, furthering American economic advantage over friend and foe alike under the guise of protecting US national security.

Consider this comment by Guardian analyst Patrick Wintour:

China … felt Meng and Huawei were being used as a weapon in a wider battle. It was highly unusual for the [US] prosecution to be directed at the chief finance officer personally and not at the corporation. Last year, Airbus agreed to pay $4bn in penalties to resolve a bribery case. In 2015, Deutsche Bank was fined $258m for violating Iran- and Syria-related sanctions. But no executives were detained in either case.

Since Meng was the daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, this was viewed as a personal attack not just on the firm but on a business hero.

Accordingly, we wrote in our 27 June 2020 blog:

As Michael Kovrig’s wife has so eloquently argued, the Chinese action, however reprehensible, was anything but random. It was a deliberate response to what that country views, with some justification, as an unjust detention of a prominent Chinese citizen by Canada at the behest of the USA.

In short, the Trump administration instigated the hostage mess, made Canada an unwitting (we hope) partner and the Biden administration cleaned it up, not primarily as a favour to Canada but because of the weakness of the US Justice Department case and, possibly, because it compromised the potential for dialogue with China on such issues as meeting the global climate challenge.

Could Canada have acted sooner?

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he would intervene in the Justice Department’s case against a Chinese telecommunications executive if it would help secure a trade deal with Beijing. – Global News, 11 December 2018.

The extradition process is inherently political (a point misunderstood in the Wintour article quoted earlier), which is why the Canadian Minister of Justice has such wide discretion to end the extradition proceedings at any point.

Trump having put politics squarely on the table, Canada could have extricated itself early on by the Minister of Justice exercising his discretion and ending the extradition proceedings. However, the government no doubt feared, with good reason, the potential retaliation from an entirely unpredictable and vengeful president.

Caught between two superpowers and desperately aware of the need to display the independence of its courts, Canada has tried to avoid provocation. – Patrick Wintour (guardian.com)

Additionally, and this is very much to the credit of the Justin Trudeau government, they may have feared the public would misunderstand and see this action as a further encroachment on the independence of the Canadian justice system, as was alleged by former Liberal Justice Minister Judy Wilson-Raybould in 2019.

The next alternative would have been to wait until the hoped-for change in administration materialized and then have the Minister of Justice exercise his discretion to end the extradition proceedings.

That would have had the enormous benefit of demonstrating to China that Canada has the will to exercise some modicum of independent action from the USA in its own national interest and that of its citizens.

But it still would have carried the risk of Canadians misreading this action as compromising judicial independence.

So, the Canadian government continued to play an agonizing long game, working behind the scenes with the American administration, and that ultimately paid off.  Which is also to say that all the ink spilled in the media over Canada’s marshalling of friends and allies to denounce China’s unjust imprisonment of the two Michaels was not what really mattered in the resolution of this case. This is not to say that Canada was wrong in seeking solidarity, but that its potential for positively influencing Chinese behaviour is modest.

A hard lesson to be learned

Not only does Canada have limited leverage over China in high stakes battles where we are collateral damage, a possibly more important lesson relates to Canada–US relations.

In respect of China–USA competition, and this is the kicker, the USA will put its interests first, whatever the consequences for allies (with France being but the latest example), and this is especially true when it is a matter of economic competition and the interests of American companies.

We need a Canadian analysis of how to protect and advance Canadian interests

Canadian analysts — and the media — must avoid uncritically equating American administrations’ perceived geo-strategic interests with Canadian interests. This is especially true where the US is using national security imperatives to advance its economic interests. This it the real Huawei Canada story that never got the media mainstream focus it deserved.

We must also remember that, despite the apparent bipartisan anti-China consensus in Washington, there are many progressive voices urging military restraint and appropriate defensive measures, in lieu of ultra-aggressive US efforts to dominate and “contain” China militarily.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

Mistrust of Chinese intentions is fully warranted, given its authoritarian system, human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism, often heavy-handed diplomacy and opaque military planning processes.

But to enhance, not undermine, Canadian security, we must accurately identify and appropriately respond to perceived Chinese threats in a measured and proportional and de-escalatory manner, if possible. This requires good analysis, based on both solid evidence of capabilities and of possible intentions and motivations.

Worst case scenarios are just that, and risk blinding us to what is actually going on.

Why China is building more missile silos – Part II

This brings us to further consideration of a topic we first looked at back on 30 July: the discovery that China was constructing what appears to be hundreds of new missile silos in central China and the factors potentially driving this behaviour.

Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen, writing again in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, expand their analysis and dig deeper into potential Chinese motivations, and they also consider how arms control, not more arms racing, might help.

Korda and Kristensen begin with the differing US reactions to the silo construction news:

hawks … claim that China is becoming an even greater nuclear threat that requires the United States and its allies to beef up their militaries even more.

Others claim that China is responding to US provocations, and that arms control is the only way forward.

In the authors’ view, this development requires “all sides” to think hard about:

  • What this means for Chinese nuclear policy
  • How nuclear-armed states will or should respond and
  • What the arms control community can and should do to reduce risks.

In answering the first question — why is China building so many silos? — Korda and Kristensen expand on the reasons given in their first article, and the deadly “action–reaction”, security-undermining dynamic it demonstrates, with the list of Chinese objectives including:

  • Reducing the vulnerability of China’s ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) to a first strike — that is, a surprise US or Russian attack
  • Overcoming potential effects of US missile defences so they do not undermine China’s retaliatory (deterrence) capability
  • Transitioning from liquid-fuel to solid-fuel silo missiles to significantly improve the survivability, operational procedures and safety of the Chinese ICBM force
  • Increasing the readiness of the ICBM force by deploying missiles fully ready and able to launch on short notice, a policy that would still fall short of the highly destabilizing “launch on warning” policy of the US and Russia
  • Balancing the ICBM force between silo and road-mobile launchers
  • Increasing China’s nuclear strike capability from its relatively low level of “minimum deterrence” in the face of, for example, the development by India of several types of longer-range missiles that appear to be explicitly intended to target China
  • Increasing the number and types of strike options and thus moving from a rather “simple” nuclear strategy to a more multi-layered retaliatory capacity — again a transition that both Russia and the USA underwent decades ago; and
  • Increasing China’s national prestige as it becomes richer and more powerful, without seeking “nuclear parity” with the US and Russia.

From minimum to medium nuclear deterrence

Korda and Kristensen write:

China now appears to be moving from a “minimum deterrent” to a “medium deterrent” that will position China between the smaller nuclear-armed states (France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea) and the two big ones (Russia and the United States).

Compare that analysis with the fevered predictions of US Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Bussiere, the deputy commander of the US Strategic Command, which oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal, that:

There’s going to be a point, a crossover point [in the next few years], where the number of threats presented by China will exceed the number of threats that currently Russia presents.

And those comments appear in a Reuters article headlined: “China will soon surpass Russia as a nuclear threat – senior U.S. military official”. (Michael Martina, 27 August 2021).

We remind that, even in the worst case projection of China fielding 875 nuclear warheads upon completion of the three silo fields, that number would still be dwarfed by the nuclear stockpiles of Russia and the United States, each of which operate nuclear warhead stockpiles close to 4,000 warheads.

What of China’s No First Use policy?

Unlike the other four declared nuclear powers (US, Russia, UK and France), China has a No First Use of nuclear weapons policy, a stance that President Biden championed in his campaign for the White House but in respect of which he has most regrettably backed off since his inauguration, along with his pledge to stand up to the formidably powerful American nuclear bureaucracy.

While American military leaders have lost no time in alleging the silo construction “brings into question” China’s No First Use policy, which China denies, Korda and Kristensen point out:

Missiles launched in response to warning of an incoming attack would not be first use but retaliation in response to an attackers’ first use.

In any event, the irony of the US military criticizing China — for allegedly adopting a policy the USA has always practised — should not be lost on anyone. And more to the point, if China is to  be criticized for moving closer to the US stance, is this not a tacit admission that the American policy is a bad one?

Biden Nuclear Posture Review

Writing about the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) now being undertaken by the Biden administration, which will outline the role and structure of the US nuclear arsenal for the next decade, Korda and Kristensen note that:

it is a classical deterrence dilemma: How to deter an adversary sufficiently so it doesn’t attack you or your allies, while at the same time not threaten it so much that it reacts by building up its forces and increases the threat against you and your allies further?

China’s build-up is only the latest chapter in a long history of military posturing shaped by US, Russian, Indian, and domestic factors.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca,

Understanding the “action–reaction” dynamic that is playing such an important part in China’s new nuclear build up is fundamental to devising strategies to mitigate, rather than further exacerbate, nuclear risks.

The arms control dimension

In reaction to the disclosure of the first missile site, the US State Department spokesperson stated:

This buildup – it is concerning…. It reinforces the importance of pursuing practical measures to reduce nuclear risks…. These advances… highlight why it’s in everyone’s interests that nuclear powers talk to one another directly about reducing nuclear dangers and avoiding miscalculations.

This approach is one we commend and urge Canada and other NATO allies to strongly and tangibly support.

With the 10th review conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) coming up, Korda and Kristensen urge non-nuclear weapons states party to the NPT to:

Make clear their objections to the Chinese build-up as well as to any other nuclear weapons state increasing its arsenal or refusing to pursue negotiations.

They conclude:

The nuclear weapon states and their allies reject the treaty [on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, TPNW] and argue that the step-by-step approach of the NPT framework is the “only practical option for making progress towards nuclear disarmament.”

Given that three of the five nuclear weapons states party to the NPT are now increasing their arsenals, the step-by-step approach appears to be going in the wrong direction.

To which we would add, it is not just the numerical increase in nuclear weapons that is extremely concerning, but the huge modernization programmes, led by the USA, across the full range of their nuclear weapons delivery systems on land, sea and air.

Whither Canada?

We call on the Government of Canada, in its relationship with China going forward, to enhance its capacity for independent analysis of the security dimension of our relationship, including the positive role that arms control, nuclear risk reduction and confidence building measures can play.

Quick notes:

For a great upcoming webinar see: October 4th Panel – After the Two Michaels: How should Canada navigate the US-China rivalry? (Institute for Peace and Diplomacy).

Finally, for a truly sleep-wrecking read, see: Assessing and Managing the Benefits and Risks of Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear-Weapon Systems (nti.org, 26 August 2021).


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tags: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, China, deferred prosecution agreement, Deterrence, extradition, Hans Kristensen, Huawei Canada, ICBMs, ICMB, judicial discretion, launch on warning, Matt Korda, Meng Wanzhou, Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor, military restraint, missile defenses, missile silos, no first use, nuclear posture, nuclear retaliatory capability, strategic rivalry