Indo-Pacific strategy: Ottawa chooses confrontation over engagement

According to Joseph de Maistre, the French philosopher, “every country has the government it deserves”. If so, it is not easy to see what Canada can possibly have done to deserve political lightweights like Justin Trudeau, its prime minister, and Melanie Joly, its foreign minister. Whereas Canada’s 13th prime minister, the legendary John Diefenbaker (serving from 1957-1963), who always had a bold vision, once declared he had “one purpose — Canada’s greatness”, this will clearly not be achieved on their watch.

After Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, he combined grandstanding at home (he called it “sunny ways”) with a vacuous foreign policy, which degenerated into farce when he visited India on an official visit decked out like a Bollywood film star (described by one observer as being “too Indian, even for an Indian”). Although, like his allies, he relishes prattling away about the “international rules-based order”, this is simply hot air. Whereas Diefenbaker always hoped that Canada would punch above its weight and forge a distinct identity in global affairs, Trudeau has settled for playing second fiddle to the United States, to which his foreign policy is now beholden. 

Although, for example, Canada and Hong Kong traditionally enjoyed good relations, Trudeau, taking his lead from the then US president, Donald Trump, failed to stand with the city in its hour of need. When a concerted effort was made by anti-China forces to wreck the “one country, two systems” policy in 2019-20, Trudeau eagerly joined arms with the US in criticizing the introduction of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL). Although the new law was the city’s salvation, Trudeau’s reaction, parroting Washington, was to claim that the “one country, two systems” policy was threatened by it, and to suspend Canada’s fugitive surrender agreement, a move from which only the criminal fraternity has benefited. 

When his then foreign minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, was asked to explain Canada’s policy on Hong Kong in 2020, he displayed a woeful ignorance of its situation. He claimed that, by enacting the NSL, Beijing had “demonstrated disregard for Hong Kong’s Basic Law and high degree of autonomy promised for Hong Kong under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework”. This, of course, was gibberish, and he was wholly unaware that, as in Canada, the ultimate responsibility for upholding national security lies with the national parliament, and not with a regional assembly, or that, as Hong Kong’s own legislature was dysfunctional and unable to act, Beijing had no choice but to intervene to ensure the survival of the “one country, two systems” policy.

As for Trudeau himself, he was also unable to explain why it was wrong for China to have enacted a law that brought the urban warfare to an end, and thereby ensure Hong Kong’s survival. Although the fanatics had made no secret of their plans to harm China by wrecking the city, he apparently considered that Beijing should have sat back and done nothing. If widespread violence had engulfed Canada, he would obviously have enacted such laws as were necessary to combat it, yet he criticized China for ending the mayhem in Hong Kong. 

Once Trudeau became prime minister, one of his first measures was the National Security Act, enacted in 2017. In its preamble, it states that “a fundamental responsibility of the Government of Canada is to protect Canada’s national security and the safety of Canadians”. As Trudeau must have appreciated, China’s own responsibility to Hong Kong and its people is precisely the same. Indeed, notwithstanding his subservience to the US, Donald Trump spoke for many when he called Trudeau “two-faced” in 2019, and it does not take a genius to work out why.  

In February 2022, when truck drivers and others blocked the streets of Ottawa with vehicles from their “Freedom Convoy”, in pandemic-related protests, Trudeau’s response was to ask Parliament to approve the Emergencies Act, which gave his government the authority to take steps to “restore order”. Whereas opposition politicians described his legislation as unnecessary and an abuse of power, one Conservative Party legislator, Dean Allison, even denounced the use of “authoritarian military style measures” against the protesters. 

Even after the Canadian Civil Liberties Union threatened legal action, saying his legislation represented an “overreach” that unnecessarily infringed on the rights of Canadians under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Trudeau insisted his anti-pandemic strategy was justified, and that he was right to clamp down on the protests.  

Fast-forward, however, to November 2022, and, after China was also confronted with pandemic-related protests, his thinking, for reasons not hard to fathom, underwent a 180-degree turn. This time, in a squalid attempt to embarrass Beijing, he declared that everyone “should be allowed to protest”, and that he would continue to “stand for human rights and with people who are expressing themselves”. Quite clearly, this is not somebody who believes that politicians should practice what they preach.   

If, however, Trudeau imagined that his double-standards would win him brownie points in Washington, he was quite correct, although his foreign minister, Melanie Joly (who was described in Huffpost as “possibly the worst cabinet minister in the history of Confederation”), will have earned greater plaudits after her latest performance.    

After Canada released its “Indo-Pacific strategy” (the strategy) on Nov 27, it became clear that it could have been cooked up in Washington. In its 26 pages, which are peppered with references to China (over 50), it is stated that, “in areas of profound disagreement, we will challenge China, including when it engages in coercive behavior — economic or otherwise — ignores human rights obligations or undermines our national security interests and those of partners in the region”.In other words, confrontation, in tandem with the US, will be prioritized over constructive dialogue and realism.

The strategy includes a C$2.3 billion ($1.7 billion) budget to expand Canada’s influence in the region in the coming years, and this will include greater militarization and heightened security measures. In language that will delight Washington, it describes China as an “increasingly disruptive global power”, and Joly said her country, while working with Beijing when necessary, would not compromise its values. In a gratuitous provocation, the strategy referenced alleged human rights abuses in China, and Joly said the “clear-eyed” vision of its growing power and aggression in the region means Canada is now more aligned to its allies (code for becoming increasingly subservient to Washington).

This, of course, falls well short of what was once expected of an ambitious country, bent on walking tall. Indeed, John Diefenbaker, like many of his countrymen, had great hopes for Canada, even saying “I am so excited about Canadians ruling the world”. With Trudeau at the helm, however, the prospects of this ever happening are now more remote than ever, whatever tidbits Washington may sometimes throw his way.   

The “Indo-Pacific strategy”, therefore, while doing nothing to defuse regional tensions or enhance trust, is aimed at buttressing US influence and stoking rivalries, in the hope that Canada can benefit incidentally. It would, of course, have required real statesmanship from Trudeau and Joly for Canada to have forged a visionary foreign policy of its own, yet this they are incapable of supplying. As Trudeau showed over Hong Kong, as well as over the US-inspired detention on bogus charges of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, it is far easier for Canada to simply obey Washington’s wishes than to exercise an independent judgment of its own. 

According to the proverb, “cometh the hour, cometh the man”, but, alas, this is not foolproof. Any system is only ever as effective as those who operate it, and, if third-raters control the levers, little or nothing can be achieved. What a pity, therefore, that, at a time when inspired leadership was required to promote positive engagement and greater understanding in the Asia-Pacific region, all that Ottawa could come up with was a pair of political hacks. 

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.