China and U.S. are huge hurdles for Canada’s COVID-19 comeback

It’s metaphor time: The climbing vine has been pruned. What to do now about the unruly garden?

Huawei’s colossal Canadian crash last week was extraordinary. Within hours, the two Canadian telecommunication companies that had so vouched and argued and defended and lobbied for China’s prized 5G purveyor to be permitted to provide its infrastructure basically divorced and ghosted the firm.

First up was Bell Media with the stunning announcement that it had decided Huawei, after years of foofaraw, was not in fact the choice. Journalists were stunned and about to get the isolated Huawei ally Telus on the line for reaction (Rogers had long since selected Ericsson and Nokia) when it, too, switched sides and swore new allegiance.

It gave Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei CFO secluded and stymied in Shaughnessy to fight extradition, another reason to really want to leave Canada. My theory is that she will be able to, that America will relent on an excessively personal prosecution. The U.S. will be appeased now that Canadian 5G will not be Huawei’s. If it hadn’t much earlier, it most likely made clear that continental technological entanglement – roaming services, cross-border networks, the internet of things and the like – was not going to happen with its co-operation if Huawei were in the game. Far from it: Donald Trump, or whoever’s administration it might be, was going to build another version of its wall, and we would be on the other cyberside of it.

With that crawling vine attended, the bigger step for our government is to acknowledge it has no particular relationship to satisfy but some particular relationship to build with our second-largest trading partner. We are not on China’s global radar. We barely rate, except as a through-point to America.

The larger challenge for our government is how to brook the two most powerful countries sandwiching, squeezing, enervating, vice-gripping us. We cannot bow deeply enough, it seems, and we have to as a much more minor player.

America got its way with Huawei. Battle won, war still to decide. China has much more where that came from, and we can only imagine what retribution or disruption the fruitless quest for alternative supply chains could inflict. We willingly, happily, greedily built a dependence on convenient, acceptable, affordable imports. Prove me wrong, but it is hard to fathom how the Walmart customer of today’s $7.99 t-shirt will accept the $14.99 one made on this continent.

Besides, we may have vilified Huawei, conveniently forgetful of other countries accused of and even proven to have unduly extended industrial reach, but China is not a one-trick pony. It can turn off taps for the thirsty, leave ships in port that should be sailing to our shores and deal with the political consequences of economic setback in ways we would not. It does disruption better; it is not agonizing over issues like 10 days of paid sick leave.

When Justin Trudeau swallowed his words for 21 seconds last week as a silent statement on America, he of course would have known that next day Bell and Telus would capitulate to their telco counterparts south of the border if their businesses were not to stagger. He, too, had to genuflect – only, unlike the two firms, he hasn’t got a practical, viable alternative.

He made the mistake that China was open to western values and practices. He assumed it would embrace inclusivity, environmentalism, human rights and the rule of law, rather than just deal with us summarily as a market and trader and nothing much more. Props for trying, but his hubris that the world was into sunny ways was way off.

Now what for this garden of weeds, blight and shade?

The pandemic has prompted a rethink writ large. Some of us are suddenly realizing we like people. Many of us have forgotten about sports TV. A few of us are pondering larger questions.

For Trudeau and his government, this is an opportunity for a reboot. It has to be sufficiently steeled for second-term Trump and long-term Xi Jinping strategies as the most harrowing scenarios; any other outcome would then be like found money.

He got off the hook for a 5G vendor decision he did not need to make, thanks to the telco titans, but larger questions linger. •

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