New year, old world

As we usher in a new year, many old challenges confronting our global community still haunt us. And we don’t have the luxury to ignore them — unless we want them to fester into bigger, more intractable problems. We must therefore deal with them head-on, with candour and creativity.

A few days ago, in the hopes of addressing some of these international threats, I had the opportunity of speaking with Conservative MP Michael Chong, who is his party’s Critic for Foreign Affairs. He is a prominent and progressive Tory. Michael is only 51 years old, but he has already packed a rather full public life experience  — an Ontario MP for 18 years, a cabinet minister under PM Harper, and a leadership candidate back in 2017.

Sergio Marchi: Michael, thanks for your time and all of the best to you and your family for the New Year.

Michael Chong: Thanks for having me and Happy New Year to you and your family, as well. I hope that this is the year when we get past this pandemic, and return to some sense of normal.

Sergio Marchi: As you look to a new year, and you consider the many ills that trouble our world, what priority international issues should Canada be focusing on?

MC: I see two priorities.

First, we must re-establish our standing in Washington. Thus far, President Biden has not really changed the foreign policy towards Canada which Trump had employed. In fact, the current administration has doubled down on a number of policies impacting our country — whether on trade, on Buy-American, on pipelines, on dairy issues, or his proposal for a tax rebate on EV’s made in the US.

Yes, Biden is playing to his domestic political needs, but our standing has been declining for some time. It's not so much that Biden’s policies have been captured by the left wing of his party, as it is a bipartisan approach to putting American interests first and foremost.

Second, we need a cohesive policy for our relations with China. We must articulate much more clearly what we stand for and what our interests are with this giant country.

Sergio Marchi: Talking about China, late last year our two Michaels thankfully returned home from Chinese prison, yet our bilateral relationship is in the deep freeze. How do we go about thawing it?

MC: Canada must take a tougher stand. We need to establish our lines in the sand, and that there will be consequences for crossing them. The problem is that we have not been clear in defining our interests and as a result, China uses this lack of clarity to its advantage. Canada cannot be used as a piñata.

Sergio Marchi: Is Canada too small to be tough and expect results? Or, do we need a coalition, as the West established with the former Soviet Union?

MC: A couple of thoughts.

First, China is not like the old Soviet block during the Cold War. The two are very different. With the Soviets, there was little two-way trade with the West, and very few people-to-people relationships. There was a wall between us.

By contrast, China today is an integrated part of the global economy, with lots of people-to-people ties.

Secondly, our current policy has left us isolated. We are a mid-sized country, with a relatively small population. But the imperative is that we should not act alone. But we do. For example, we are the only member of the Five Eyes countries to not move against the Huawei 5-G telecom system. As well, we joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank network, despite the urging of the US to not be a member. And we are not part of the recently formed defence pact with the US, UK, and Australia.

This is a risky place to be in. We need to work more closely with our allies and strengthen our collaboration.

Sergio Marchi: Currently, we don’t have an Ambassador to China, as Dominic Barton left at the end of 2021. Do you have any thoughts on whether our next envoy should be a career foreign service officer or a political appointee?

MC: I believe we should appoint a career person. One who spent their life working and understanding how China operates, and one who is conversant in Mandarin. I think it was a mistake to break with tradition in the last two political appointees. That political designation should be reserved for close allies like the US, UK, and France.

Sergio Marchi: With countries where we strongly disagree on many issues, is it not important to have a diplomatic presence, to keep the discourse and our influence alive? In that regard, should we reopen our embassy in Iran?

MC: When it comes to regimes like Afghanistan and Iran, I feel we should keep the status quo, namely regimes we do not recognize. I don’t believe we should open diplomatic ties. Instead, we should use secondary methods of communication.

Indeed, Iran continues to threaten our values. They have not changed their ways, whether it is the issue of nuclear weapons or the downing of a commercial airliner. There is no utility in re-establishing diplomatic relations.

Sergio Marchi: Venezuela is a serious hotspot of instability in our region, and the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians are filling the vacuum left by western countries and companies. What should Canada be doing in concert with the US and our Latin American allies?

MC: I would like to offer some kudos to our government for its role in the Lima Group, and the work it has done on Venezuela. The Maduro regime is illegitimate, and it tramples over democratic norms and violates human rights. We must try to provide Maduro with an exit. Unfortunately, that has not yet happened.

Sergio Marchi: At the same time, the Venezuelan Opposition, headed by Juan Quaido, is in disarray, ineffective and unpopular. While it is not for Canada to choose the Opposition Leader, are we not giving Maduro a free pass by propping up a weak alternative?

MC: As time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize Guaido as the legitimate Opposition Leader for constitutional and other reasons. It is important that allies talk to one another and work in concert. Not everyone is proposing the same solution, but it is critical for Canada and our allies to speak with one voice when it comes to trying to restore prosperity and democracy in Venezuela.

Sergio Marchi: The global distribution of Covid vaccines has been a very sore point for developing countries, who see nations like ours procuring more than we need, and leaving poorer countries without enough supplies for their citizens. How can we achieve greater equity and balance?

MC: One of the challenges is that we don’t have a domestic vaccine industry, which makes it difficult for us to discuss issues of distribution. Post the pandemic, we should be reviewing our R&D policies as they relate to the pharma industry. Canada was once a leader in this realm, but we have slipped in recent years. We really need to take a hard look so we can play a bigger role for developing countries.

Another proposal that I would make is for Canada to play a leading role with a consortium of western countries, aimed at fighting extreme poverty. The World Bank has recently highlighted that more than 100 million people have been pushed back into poverty. They live on under $2 a day. This represents a significant reversal of the progress we made in the last 20 years. It will take a special effort, but Canada should be active on this front.

Sergio Marchi: Anything else you would like to add?

MC: Well, let me say in closing that Canada, many years ago, operated under the shadow of the British. Then, we stepped into the shadow of the United States. We must now realize that we can no longer assume the protection of a superpower. We need to stand up for ourselves. We must get serious about our defence policy, our foreign policy, and our international development policy.

A new generation of Canadians is coming of age, and they expect more.