Canada must stop all military collaboration with China

Recent revelations that Global Affairs Canada pushed back against a decision by the chief of the defence staff to cancel winter military exercises on Canadian soil with the People’s Liberation Army in 2019 show that Ottawa still engages in wishful thinking about China. This refusal to face reality could harm Canada’s reputation among other democracies that are now choosing to stand up to authoritarian aggression.

Global Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office have yet to get the memo about what China has been up to. Thankfully, others have, and chief of the defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, who made the call to cancel the training exercise, is among them. Those of us who have attended the annual Halifax International Security Forum (HISF) and have heard him speak there know that Vance is a strong supporter of close military co-operation among democracies. (Needless to say, one will not find a single Chinese participant at HISF, which limits attendance to representatives from democracies around the world.)

Although this decision reportedly angered Prime Minister , Vance absolutely did the right thing. Over the years, China has built up and modernized a military that can now threaten all of Asia. Backed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China has defied international law and orchestrated a hostile takeover of the South China Sea. It has violated contested waters in the East China Sea, initiated deadly clashes along the border with India, and, since September, it has routinely threatened neighbouring Taiwan with intrusions into its Air Defence Identification Zone as well as across a median line in the Taiwan Strait.

The PLA and other security agencies, furthermore, have played a key role in repressing minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Indeed, China’s military has used a constellation of firms over which it has influence to penetrate democratic societies worldwide.

No other country in the entire Indo-Pacific has implemented a military posture as offensive and destabilizing as China. Notwithstanding its claim that the PLA is a purely defensive military, China’s order of battle, added to the disturbing displays of its arsenal on national holidays — with echoes of fascism that led to the catastrophe of the Second World War — leave no doubt that China regards the use of force as a legitimate tool to refashion the region.

Under , China has turned into a repressive police state equipped with a mass surveillance system the likes of which has never been seen (except in the dystopia of Orwell’s 1984). Its “wolf warrior” would-be diplomats have violated every convention of diplomatic conduct. The state apparatus has weaponized trade to cow adversaries into submission, and, with increasing frequency, it has resorted to kidnapping to coerce and punish those who stand in its way. China has had no compunction in stealing advanced technology from other countries, and has launched cyberattacks against dozens of them.

Given all this, it boggles the mind that Canada, which prides itself as a beacon of democracy, would consider it appropriate to collaborate with the organization that serves as the spearhead for Beijing’s authoritarian vision. Even more troubling is the possibility that such co-operation could pass on skills which the PLA could use to defeat our allies in battle.

Canada already has an unenvious reputation for allowing Chinese firms to acquire firms in the defence sector; the idea that we could be training them is abominable. (Another risk is that the PLA is using exchanges and joint training to collect intelligence, especially against other members of the Five Eyes community.)

Ottawa now has a choice, and it shouldn’t be a difficult one: We either side with like-minded countries whose attachment to democratic ideals reflects what we presumably believe in, or we become complicit in the revisionist designs of repressive states like China. This doesn’t mean that trade, cultural exchanges, and diplomatic ties with China should cease. But in certain areas, such as the military, we ought to seriously consider ceasing all collaboration if such ties risk empowering the authoritarian regime.

Undoubtedly, Canada has had its issues with other democracies, chief among them our giant neighbour to the south, most starkly over the past four years. Whatever differences we may have with the United States, those can be resolved. And Washington does not kidnap our nationals whenever we do something that isn’t to its liking. Like Vance, Ottawa doesn’t need to be told by the U.S. to do what is so evidently in our own national interest. In that, Ottawa should emulate what HISF has accomplished over the years: strengthen ties with like-minded democracies, and leave the autocrats in the cold.

We define who we are through our actions, not the stories we tell about ourselves.

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