Canada’s ambassador to Beijing makes discreet visit to White House after high-profile prisoner release

World

Canada's ambassador to China was in an unusual setting on Friday: the White House. The visit happened without fanfare. It comes amid a broad rethink in Washington about future relations with China — a conversation that has implications for Canada.

Canada's ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, right, and Canada's ambassador to Washington, Kirsten Hillman, arrived for a meeting at the White House on Friday.(CBC)

Canada's ambassador to Beijing has just made a discreet visit to a different world capital in the aftermath of last week's high-profile release of prisoners.

Dominic Barton was at the White House on Friday for a meeting with American officials and Canada's U.S. ambassador Kirsten Hillman. The Washington meeting was not publicly announced.

But when a CBC News crew outside the White House asked Barton about his trip, he cited two objectives for the meeting with officials in the Indo-Pacific section of the U.S. National Security Council.

The first was to thank the Biden administration for its help securing the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, which came just hours after the extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was dropped.

The second: To discuss policies for the Indo-Pacific region.

"Understanding what their approach is [in the administration]," said Barton, as he and Hillman entered the White House grounds.

He said he was following up on an earlier conversation with U.S. officials during a visit in April, when the two sides talked about "comparing notes — what they're doing, what we're doing."

His visit came exactly a week after the release of the so-called two Michaels, which Barton referred to as one of the best days of his life.

It also occurred against a broader long-term backdrop: A rethink in Washington and elsewhere about managing relations with China.

'I think we're all waiting for Canada's policy'

There are signs the U.S. wants a better sense of where its allies stand on China issues — a desire that predates the release of the two Michaels.

It was illustrated recently in public statements by President Joe Biden's choice to become the next ambassador to Canada. At his confirmation hearing last week in the U.S. Senate, David Cohen was asked what he would do to deepen co-ordination with Canada on China issues.

He replied that he's looking for clarity from Ottawa. "I think we are all waiting for Canada to release its framework for its overall China policy," Cohen told the Senate hearing.

He said he would make it a priority as ambassador to see that Canada's overall policies on China reflect its own words during the detention of Spavor and Kovrig, a time when the country was outspoken.

He described China as an existential threat — politically, economically and diplomatically.

Competition with China is one policy that has largely survived the transition between the administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Biden is seen here in 2013, when he was vice-president, shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping.(Lintao Zhang/Reuters)

Separately, there's a bill advancing through Congress that could require the U.S. administration to release public reports on different allies' approaches to China.

So what exactly is the U.S. looking for? (Aside, of course, from the oft-articulated American desire to keep Huawei out of 5G phone networks.)

In an interview, Nadia Schadlow, who was instrumental in articulating Washington's new approach to China, offered some ideas.

What American officials are saying about China

Schadlow was the lead author of a milestone 2017 White House national security strategy that concluded hopes for a liberalized China had failed to materialize.

It said the U.S. had better prepare for an era of competition and accused China of stealing intellectual property, cheating on trade agreements, bullying smaller countries and promoting authoritarianism elsewhere.

That view has survived the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration and is a rare point of bipartisan agreement in Washington.

When asked what the U.S. hopes to see from Canada and other allies, Schadlow said: "An assertive and unequivocal partner in this long-term challenge."

For example, she referred to extensive work being done in Washington by the Biden administration on critical manufacturing. The new administration mapped out areas where the U.S. is dependent on vital goods from China and proposed ways to diversify its supplies.

"Where is the Canadian equivalent of the Biden supply-chain review?" Schadlow said.

Another former senior U.S. official on China policy expressed disappointment in the level of co-ordination between democratic countries. Matt Turpin was the White House director for China at the U.S. National Security Council during the arrest of the two Michaels.

Barton called the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig a deeply emotional day, one of the best of his life. In this photo, Kovrig is seen embracing his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, after arriving at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.(Frank Gunn/CP)

China, he said, has just pummelled two members of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership: It cut off Australian exports after Australia demanded a probe into COVID-19's origins and it restricted some Canadian products and arrested the Spavor and Kovrig in the wake of the Meng detention.

And yet, he said, the international response is disjointed.

Democracies remain unco-ordinated: Trump official

Turpin said that's because old security partnerships from the Cold War were built to deter a Soviet military attack — not respond to Chinese economic attacks.

He raised the example of NATO, which for more than 70 years has had a mutual-defence pact with its Article 5.

"What does an economic Article 5 look like [today]?" Turpin said. "We don't seem to be speaking with one common voice.… Having that conversation is a conversation we should all be having together."

Looking back at the plight of the two Michaels, Turpin said he immediately feared Canadians might be detained after he learned of Meng's arrest.

Too few people remember a similar previous case involving Canadians in China, he said, and didn't realize this was a known Chinese tactic.

In some ways, he said, the arrests have backfired on the Chinese government because its reputation has suffered around the world. On the other hand, he said, he's worried Beijing will draw the opposite conclusion.

On the day the two Michaels were released, members of the 'Quad' alliance — U.S., Japan, India and Australia — held their first in-person leaders' meeting at the White House. Two of the group's leaders, U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are seen during that meeting last Friday.(Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

He said China might conclude this technique worked just fine: Meng is now free and Canada has still not formally announced its Huawei policy.

"[Arrests like these] can keep people's criticisms muted," he said. "From Beijing's perspective, they think it works. Which is a disturbing outcome."

Does 'the Quad' want Canada?

In the recent Canadian election, there was some talk about the country's China policy — particularly about Canada's exclusion from a new U.S.-Australia-U.K. submarine pact.

Less attention was paid to another, slightly older alliance — the so-called Quad group, sometimes referred to as a possible future NATO of the Indo-Pacific region.

Yet it so happened that on the day the two Michaels were released, Biden was holding the first in-person meeting of the leaders of the group, which includes the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

The four countries announced a variety of economic, cybersecurity, pandemic and development initiatives.

It's still a loose alliance, with no headquarters or formal military partnership, and there's broad disagreement within the four countries about where to take the partnership.

During the election campaign, the Conservatives referred in their platform to joining the Quad.

The Liberals did not make such a promise but a party spokesperson told CBC News that they weren't ruling it out and noted Canada had already contributed to its naval exercises.

Several former U.S. officials who worked on Indo-Pacific issues said it's unlikely the Quad actually wants any new full participants.

But Schadlow and others said there's interest in what's called a "Quad-plus" approach, where other allies contribute to initiatives.

That's also the view of Michael Green, who witnessed the group's inception in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as he oversaw Asian affairs on George W. Bush's National Security Council.

"The Quad doesn't want new members," he said in an interview. "What they want is a la carte participation."

When countries in the group discuss the idea of ad-hoc participation, he said, the countries that always come up are Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, the U.K., France and the Netherlands.

He said Canadian participation could involve more contributions to naval exercises, humanitarian projects like vaccine diplomacy, and securing new non-Chinese supplies of rare metals used in high-tech manufacturing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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