Upon discovering that Canada had begun to accept refugees from Hong Kong (critics of Beijing no longer feel safe in the aftermath of a Chinese law that has all but criminalized negative commentary about the communist regime), China’s ambassador in Ottawa, Cong Peiwu, went on a tirade.
After labelling the asylum seekers “criminals,” he issued a clear threat:
“So, if the Canadian side … really cares about the good health and safety of those 300,000 Canadian passport holders in Hong Kong and the large number of Canadian companies operating in Hong Kong, you should support those efforts … to make sure the one country, two systems is most definitely and comprehensively implemented in Hong Kong.”
Canada’s foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne, responded as follows:
“The reported comments by the Chinese Ambassador are totally unacceptable and disturbing. I have instructed Global Affairs to call the Ambassador in to make clear in no uncertain terms that Canada will always stand up for human rights and the rights of Canadians around the world.”
To the leader of the opposition, Erin O’Toole, Champagne’s actions were insufficient.
Ambassador Cong had engaged “in belligerent rhetoric unbecoming of his office.” O'Toole's party was “therefore calling on the Ambassador to fully retract his remarks and issue a public apology. Should the Ambassador fail to do so expeditiously, we expect the government to withdraw his credentials.”
As someone whose personal views of China today are likely closer to Mr. O’Toole’s than they are to some members of the Liberal government, I understand the anger and frustration.
I also recognize that it is the opposition’s job to oppose, and that in anticipation of an election that could come at any time, the Conservatives intend to differentiate themselves from the Trudeau Liberals on foreign policy. (Look, for instance, at how the Toronto Sun immediately praised O’Toole’s comments.)
But calling on Ottawa to escalate the conflict (since we all know that the ambassador will never retract his remarks) risks undermining Canadian interests both today and into the future.
First, and most important, kicking out the Chinese ambassador would inevitably lead to reciprocal action from Beijing.
Canada’s top representative in China, Dominic Barton, would soon be packing his bags as well, and that’s assuming that China did not escalate right back and shut down our diplomatic presence altogether.
From what I understand, whatever limited progress Ottawa has made in keeping tabs on the plight of the two Michaels is at least in part the result of Barton’s connections and diligence.
So, at best, we lose the relationships he has built. At worst, we lose access to the Canadian hostages altogether.
The longer-term problem is tactical.
States use diplomacy to resolve conflict without having to resort to war. Decisions to escalate must therefore take into consideration second- and third-order effects.
If Ottawa were to forcibly eject the Chinese ambassador for merely threatening the safety and security of Canadians in Hong Kong, what would it do if Beijing took real action?
Some might suggest that Canada could sever ties with China completely, but how would that help the Canadians stuck in Hong Kong?
Moreover, if or when escalation is truly necessary, Ottawa mustn’t act alone.
We share mutual interests with the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, and perhaps even the entire European Union. (Should the Americans choose a new administration in November, coordination with Washington would also be critical.)
We have significantly more leverage by acting together.
For now, it seems to me that Minister Champagne’s response was appropriate.
Our government is right to let Ambassador Cong’s comments be the story: yet another example of Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy that continues to undermine the communist regime’s international credibility.
On the dangers of diplomatic escalation, take a look at the recently retired (and already deeply missed) Kim Richard Nossal’s Rain Dancing: Sanctions in Canadian and Australian Foreign Policy.
If you’d like to read some more recent political history, check out Susie Colbourn and Tim Sayle’s new edited book, The Nuclear North: Histories of Canada in the Atomic Age.
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