His calls for greater civility in Canadian politics and within the Conservative Party itself are refreshing.
His commitment to end supply management is courageous, and while I don’t agree with bits and pieces of his platform, he certainly wouldn’t scare me if he became the next Conservative leader.
Realistically, there is almost no chance of that happening, but in a time of increasingly unhinged and radical political discourse, Aitchison offers a pleasant reminder of what Canadian politics could still be, with a little bit of effort.
Perhaps it’s because I find Aitchison’s candidacy so appealing that I can’t stop thinking about how much I disagree with his most recent pledge.
Last week, he announced that, as prime minister, he would “end Canada’s ‘One China’ policy and recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.”
As a long-time student of Canadian diplomatic history, I cannot see anything positive coming from such a unilateral declaration.
The last time Canada freelanced this way on the world stage was in August 2018 when then foreign minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted out opposition to Saudi Arabia’s arbitrary imprisonment of a number of female human rights activists.
The Saudi reaction was disproportionate, and punitive, but there was nothing Ottawa could do about it. Moreover, rather than backing us, our “allies” collectively looked the other way.
And, of course, Saudi policy didn’t change at all.
To its credit, the Trudeau government learned its lesson: Canadian criticism goes much further when it is part of a larger Western, or global, initiative.
What’s more, when states are working together, it is significantly more difficult for the subject of their disapproval to lash out in response.
In the aftermath of China’s kidnapping of the Two Michaels, foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne quietly assembled a group of over 50 countries before announcing the Declaration against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations.
One can debate the impact of the declaration on Chinese policy, but it certainly expressed Canada’s position just as clearly as a unilateral statement would have; it demonstrated that we were not alone in our view; and it did not incur significant blowback.
What makes Aitchison’s pledge even more frustrating is that he clearly knows better.
Consider the pragmatism evident in the rest of his position on Taiwan (the emphasis is mine): “We will work with our allies and trade partners to welcome Taiwan into the TPP and support their efforts to join international bodies like the WHO, obtain observer status at INTERPOL, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”
Aitchison has to know that a more ambiguous commitment to recognizing Taiwan would make it significantly easier for Canadian negotiators to build support for the rest of his policy aims, especially among states that aren’t ready to be so open about their position.
Nevertheless, he seems insistent on puffing out Canada’s proverbial chest – and thereby exposing the lack of force behind our words.
His pledge would inevitably lead to massive economic losses for Canadians who do business with China without doing anything for the people of Taiwan.
Ironically, to defend Aitchison’s position is to suggest that Canada’s independent voice on the world stage can make a significant difference on its own.
Yet, just last year, the Conservative Party’s own election platform claimed that “the Trudeau government has presided over a Canada with diminishing influence on issues that affect our prosperity and security.”
So not only is Aitchison’s proposal bad policy, it is also bad politics, especially for a Conservative.
Shame on whoever convinced him that promising to unilaterally recognize Taiwan was a good idea.
On the state of Canadian foreign policy, take a look at former diplomat Dan Livermore’s thoughts about the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s ongoing review of our foreign service. I look forward to the committee’s eventual report.
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