Lessons from the Pandemic

Column / Don Newman

As 2021 unfolds and the COVID-19 pandemic, hopefully, recedes, Canada will have to adapt and adjust to some of the lessons we have learned from the pandemic and other events of the past year. Some of the adjustments will be difficult. Some will appear contradictory.

We will have to be more independent and assertive, both domestically and internationally. Canada must make sure we have the capacity to manufacture the equipment, vaccines and other material needed to face crises in the future without relying solely on the good will of others. But the trade agreements, defence alliances and international relationships that are vital to governing in an ever-more connected world must be strengthened and enhanced. 

And Canada must raise its diplomatic profile, to strengthen its role in the struggle in what will be the most important international contest of the next 50 years. That is the struggle between liberal democracies led by the United States, and authoritarian-totalitarian states led by China. Ironically, to get in a position to play an important role in that ongoing struggle we will first have to accommodate China and disappoint the United States before we join Washington and our other natural allies in countering Beijing.

That can be done by using the months ahead to try and finally resolve the “Two Michaels” hostage situation. Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been languishing in Chinese jails for over two years, seized in retaliation for the detention of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an extradition request from the US. Madame Meng is the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, and CFO of that company. She is accused of bank fraud for lying to American banks about financial transactions between a Huawei subsidiary and Iranian companies between 2009 and 2014, when those transactions were illegal because of sanctions against Iran for pursuing its program to acquire nuclear weapons.

The extradition request came from the Trump administration, which, in 2018, had pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015. That agreement, between Tehran and the P5+1 countries (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus the EU) cancelled the sanctions in exchange for restrictions on and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. The Biden administration aims to restore the deal.  

Meanwhile, the American extradition request remains in place and is winding its way through the Canadian courts, but sanctions or not, now is the time for Canada to exert its independence and try to cut a deal that would return the Michaels to Canada and Madame Meng to China. Until now, Canada has relied on the US and other allies to keep the pressure on China to release our hostages. Now, we must try to negotiate a hostage swap with Beijing to get the Canadians back.

Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, is the ideal man to do it. Barton’s expertise as a business executive and avowed Sinophile dates to when he headed the Asian practice of McKinsey from 2004-09, based in Shanghai. While Barton walked back his enthusiastic support for Beijing last May, saying he’d “probably drank the Kool Aid for too long” on China, that public reality check and his record with the regime make him best interlocutor. Beijing has already linked the release of Meng and the release of the Michaels as a viable quid pro quo, so the cost in terms of “lian” or losing face, has been processed. If there was ever a time to make a deal this is it.

When the two Michaels are safely home, Canada can normalize its relations with Beijing absent the distorting coercion of hostage diplomacy. Issues from whether to bar Huawei from our 5G high speed telecommunications network as our Five Eyes intelligence partners have done, to whether to identify China’s persecution of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs as genocide and how to respond to Beijing’s violation of its treaty obligations to the people of Hong Kong, will be managed with moral clarity. 

For the foreseeable future, the geopolitical competition will be between the repressive regimes of China, Russia, Iran and their acolytes, and the liberal democracies of the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea and, hopefully, India. It is time for Canada to clear up our unfinished business with China so we can move forward in that battle.  

Columnist Don Newman, Executive Vice President of Rubicon Strategies in Ottawa, is a lifetime member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of the bestselling memoir, Welcome to the Broadcast.