Canada outflanked by strongarm superpowers

When it comes to Canada’s choices of pleasing or displeasing America or China, we are not caught between a rock and a hard place.

We are caught under two rocks.

Like the James Franco character in the movie 127 Hours, we got ourselves there with wayward adventures out of our depths. We miscalculated the circumstances.

Now, like him, wedged helplessly by boulders, we have an opportunity to reflect on our lives and decide if we will amputate a limb to get back to safety. The difference between us and the movie plot is we have two limbs from which to choose if we wish to sever.

We have time, it seems, because the Justin Trudeau government has lost its assertiveness with its two largest trading partners and most significant influences. It is, in a football sense, punting on second down rather than playing the ball and risking a fumble.

The dithering has been diminishing.

The latest pipsqueak policy approach was news last week that there will be no decision until after the October election on whether we will use 5G technology from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. The Conservatives are against doing so, and to date the Liberals have been for it. The company is working with our universities and is on a charm offensive to coax us to work together.

No one should be surprised about Trudeau’s non-move, but it is cowardly in pretending Canada does not have the data to decide and naive to think it won’t be a campaign issue. It is also harmful to the businesses whose progress depends on the technology.

Ultimately it could cost companies billions of dollars in adjusting their plans, in which case consumers will pay, or in federal restitution, in which case taxpayers will pay. Pick which pocket of ours to pick.

Most of our intelligence allies are one by one determining that Huawei – or rather, its tie to the Xi Jinping regime – is too troublesome to bear. Apart from America’s animus, which has to be discounted due to the president’s erratic pronouncements, the verdicts are in from Australia and New Zealand. The United Kingdom has taken the same kick-the-can-down-the-road approach as Canada, but it is clear that government wants Huawei to have only a minor role in the major arrival in our lives of 5G.

Canada, meanwhile, is trapped in policies it advanced in an early Xi period in which it was assumed China would be opening its markets and its democracy. Trudeau has failed to adapt to the more recent Xi posture or to engage China with something more than benign accommodation. That China can imprison innocent Canadians for months with impunity indicates our lack of spine, and that we claim without any evidence that allies have our backs in this episode indicates our lack of synapses.

We have, of course, our own Vancouver hostage in Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, at the moment wearing the only non-jewelry ankle bracelet among residents of Shaughnessy. The American government’s request to pinch her at the airport and make Canada extradite her was excessive. She could have been convicted in absentia and fined like the other purported cybercriminals the U.S. has prosecuted. But there, too, we didn’t bow up and didn’t realize this would blow up.

Instead she is an emblem of the fruitless state of our diplomacy, trade, foreign policy and place in the world. We stand to lose if the courts extradite her to the U.S. and we stand to lose if the courts deny it. One of the two boulders will exact a price.

As Donald Trump fixates on tariffs and protracts a trade war, as China retaliates and threatens nearby sovereignty, Canada finds itself in the familiar bed as the peripheral mouse, only now with two elephants who can roll over us. What did we do to deserve this? Simple: we mistakenly assumed our trading position and ambition was insurance that would supersede superpower aggression, and now we are learning that we were out of our minds to think so.

No wonder the Trudeau government has deferred a decision on Huawei. Sometimes doing nothing is way better than doing something, even if the Franco character might disagree.


Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.