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Ottawa got a glimpse of the troublesome future it’s heading towards when Washington and Beijing both decided this week to indulge in a bit of Canada bashing.
On the one hand we had Joe Biden, presumed Democratic presidential nominee, declaring that he’d trash the Keystone XL pipeline project should he win the U.S. election in November.
On the other we had another in the apparently bottomless supply of blustering Chinese frontmen delivering one of the fierce scoldings for which the communist government has become renowned. Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne was denounced for “gross interference in China’s internal affairs” after tepidly revealing Ottawa is “concerned” over arrests in Hong Kong. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney then earned his own verbal assault for questioning China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and criticizing the arrest of Martin Lee , a long-time pro-democracy campaigner.
Taken independently, neither development is panic-worthy. Of course Joe Biden was going to denounce Keystone. The Obama administration in which he served did its best to stall the project at every opportunity, and Biden isn’t about to annoy the environmental lobby when he’s heading into what’s likely to be a tough and bruising campaign. And of course Beijing is going to fire off some wild and crazy comments any time its actions are questioned in any way. That’s what it does.
But together they reflect the fact that almost four years of President Donald Trump, combined with the ballooning belligerence of Beijing, leaves Canada trapped between two grumpy and aggressive forces, neither of which can be ignored, and neither of which appears too preoccupied with Canada’s feelings about it.
Washington is supposed to be the friend and ally, the country we can count on. Our biggest commercial partner, a democratic neighbour supposedly committed to the same general goals of peace and prosperity. The Trump administration has stamped a big question mark over that pleasant assumption, making clear that nothing can be taken for granted, from reliable trade ties to a supply of medical masks when we need them. Or even civil tone. It’s safe to guess that most of official Ottawa, just like much of Canada, hopes the situation would improve under a Biden administration, given the syrupy bromance that prevailed during the short overlap of the Obama and Trudeau terms.
Canada is trapped between two grumpy and aggressive forces, neither of which can be ignored
That might be naive. If Donald Trump has demonstrated anything, it’s the range and depth of disaffection that prevails among Americans. It’s unlikely the notion of “America first” will be going anywhere fast, no matter who wins in November. Biden may not be as crude or ill-informed as Trump, but he can read American sentiments, and he no doubt knows voters are no less fed up now than they were four years ago. His pandering may be directed more to the left than the right, but it’s unlikely to be any less focused on easing the roiling discontent that has turned the U.S. into two divided and warring camps.
For its part, China is not interested in friendship. President Xi Jinping seems convinced the world should accede to Beijing’s dictates as readily and unquestioningly as his own trapped population. He is busy building China’s military and economic strength around the globe in a transparent move to make the communist regime too powerful to resist. Efforts by Shandong Gold Mining Co. Ltd., a state-owned enterprise, to buy TMAC Resources Inc. in Canada’s Arctic are just a small piece in Beijing’s plan to amass control over critical metals and minerals. Its jailing of two Canadians in a bid to force Ottawa’s hand in the treatment of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is a demonstration of its brutal methods.
The easy solution would be for Ottawa to pick one over the other — choose a dance partner and stick with it — but that’s no longer possible. Choosing China is out of the question, and Canada already has too many eggs in the U.S. basket. Though that’s long been the case, the uncertainty and turmoil of the Trump years has brought home like never before just how vulnerable that leaves us. Maybe a new administration is more co-operative, maybe not. Maybe the next Republican after Trump takes his cue from the MAGA movement and decides to ramp it up even further, applying tariffs and tossing off sanctions with even greater enthusiasm. “Progressives,” meanwhile, are increasingly hostile to the notion of open borders and free trade pacts. Unions are a key Democrat power base, and union bosses want manufacturing and supply lines brought back firmly within U.S. borders. Canada is OK with them, as long as we don’t get in the way.
Inflaming the situation is the bitter rivalry of the two constituent components. Trump has done much to try to contain Beijing’s ambitions, which has largely increased China’s determination not to be contained. Biden is unlikely to show any greater restraint, as China-bashing is popular on both sides of the political divide. Both campaigns are already running ads accusing the other of being too soft. Trumpites refer to the Democrat as “Beijing Biden,”
Democrats accuse Trump of “rolling over” to China in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Canada’s foreign policy has long consisted of fence-sitting, going along to get along, hoping to stay friends with all sides at once. Good luck with that going forward. It may finally be the time Ottawa has to declare what Canada stands for, and deal with the repercussions that come with it. Or risk being road kill in a game of chicken between two bigger and less humble powers.
• Twitter: KellyMcParland
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