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Canada, China and COVID: Threat or Opportunity?

Written by: Hugh Stephens

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown Canada and China together in ways that could not have been imagined three months ago. While the final chapter has not yet been written, it is clear that COVID-19 will have an indelible impact on the way that Canadians view China, for better and for worse. Maybe China will get credit and goodwill for contributing to a solution, (could there be a Chinese vaccine to “save the world”?) or perhaps there will be further recriminations about China’s failure to control the outbreak in its earliest phases. Likewise, Chinese supply chains are being both tapped for emergency shipments and blamed for quality failings (which I get into further below). Whatever happens, Canada-China relations (and the relations of most countries with China) will never be the same. At the same time, Canada-China relations are badly in need of repair, and the COVID epidemic could be a catalyst for some positive change.

Canada-China relations have undergone a period of unprecedented chill ever since Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US Department of Justice warrant in December 2018 during a stopover in Vancouver, and China retaliated by arresting Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on alleged national security charges just days later. China further retaliated by blocking or impeding Canadian exports to China, and some canola exports are still blocked. In the meantime, the coronavirus has changed the health and economic landscape in China, Canada, and around the world. How has the onset of COVID-19 affected Canada-China relations and what will be its impact going forward?

The coronavirus crisis has presented many domestic health and economic challenges to Canadians, but it has also highlighted several issues regarding Canada’s relations with the world, especially the US and China, that have been accentuated by the fight against COVID-19. While the US seems intent on pursuing a strident “America First” policy (sudden and unannounced travel restrictions, aggressive sourcing of medical equipment globally and attempting to restrict exports of medical and protective equipment made in the USA), while pointing fingers of blame at others for the current COVID (“Chinese virus”) crisis it is dealing with so badly, Canada has taken a more nuanced path. It did not impose early blanket travel restrictions on China, nor did it seek to publicly name and shame China for being the source of the virus. In fact, Canada went so far as to provide a shipment of sixteen tons of protective medical supplies from the Canadian Red Cross as assistance to China in early February as that country’s fight against the virus was in its critical stages, equipment that domestic critics have charged should have been kept at home. The Chinese government expressed gratitude for the support. We now know from press reports that there was some time urgency to make the donation as much of the material was about to reach its expiry date, was badly needed in China at that time, and could be sent in the belly of the repatriation plane that was being sent to Wuhan to bring back Canadians quarantined there.

The final evaluation of success will depend of course not on whether Canada’s policy was less diplomatically abrasive but on how well it has protected Canadians from the ravages of the virus. At the date of writing Canada’s response seems to have been relatively effective, more so than in many parts of the US, and Chinese organizations, the Bank of China and Huawei among them, have reciprocated by donating shipments of needed protective personal equipment to Canada.

While the coronavirus provides an opportunity for “changing the channel” on the Canada-China relationship, one thing that has not changed is the situation of Kovrig and Spavor. It has been reported that China is providing the two Michaels “better food” (whatever that means) during their detention owing to the health threat posed by the virus in China, but consular visits have been cut off ostensibly owing to heightened health risks from the virus. Meanwhile, Meng’s extradition trial in Vancouver is proceeding at a frustratingly slow but deliberate pace. Despite the closure of many public facilities because of COVID-19, the case will proceed via teleconferencing but no early decision is expected.

Another key element of the relationship yet to be resolved is the impending decision on whether to bar Huawei from participating in Canada’s 5G rollout. The recent decision by the UK government to allow Huawei to provide equipment for non-core elements of Britain’s 5G network would seem to provide Canada with some “cover” if it opted for a similar decision (assuming there is no reversal of the British decision, which is appearing to be increasingly likely), but the fight against COVID-19 has relegated such policy decisions to the back-burner for the time being. The 5G issue is unlikely to be dealt with until we are into a post-COVID recovery period, at least some months away.

When that finally happens, there will be a full assessment of many aspects of the pandemic, including the degree of responsibility that China bears for the outbreak. Already there are conspiracy theories circulating on social media and elsewhere claiming that the outbreak was deliberately triggered by China as part of its long-term plan for global domination. China has struck back by promoting alternative conspiracy theories laying blame at the feet of the US through aggressive use of Twitter by young “Wolf Warrior” diplomats. Although Twitter (like most western social media) is banned in China, the Twitter counter-attacks seem to be mostly aimed at overseas Chinese communities and technically savvy young Chinese who know how to bypass the “Great Firewall”. The mudslinging has hurt China’s reputation internationally, and the Chinese ambassador to the US went so far as to call the conspiracy theories that the US had engineered the virus “crazy”.

Playing the blame game serves no-one’s interest, although it is abundantly clear that China should have moved faster to shut down social gatherings and travel from Wuhan in mid-January and that the suppression of information about the virus by the local authorities there, including accusing whistle-blower Dr. Li Wenliang of “spreading rumours to disrupt social order”, prevented earlier action. But if China could have handled the initial phases of the outbreak better, so too could many other countries who were given ample warning of the challenges involved in controlling the disease provided by China, and later Iran and Italy. China has sought to alter the narrative by providing assistance to other hard-hit countries now that it appears to have got the worst of its own situation under control, and has been criticized for doing so. The objection is not so much that China is donating supplies and equipment, but that it is now using its generosity as a propaganda weapon. (When Canada donated its supplies to China in February, the Canadian Embassy in Beijing was understandably quick to publicize the action on Chinese social media). If the Chinese had taken the opposite approach of restricting the export of critical medical equipment and protective gear as over 60 countries (but not Canada) have done, criticism would have been more easily justified.

The other element of criticism levelled at China concerns sale or donation of substandard products, with the implication that poor quality shipments have somehow been a form of deliberate sabotage. China is a big country with many suppliers, and quality control has been an ongoing problem in many areas, not just medical equipment. The China Law Blog, an online publication with practical advice about doing business in China, has outlined in detail the many challenges of procuring properly certified personal protective equipment in China. China’s market is a Wild West but the Chinese government has to ensure that exported goods meet quality standards. This has caused another problem, as the extra controls have delayed the shipment of needed medical supplies, leading the US to now request that the export controls be eased. While China seems to be caught in a no-win situation on this issue, the dependence on Chinese supplies is fuelling demands for greater domestic production and self-sufficiency. Once the pandemic is over, an inevitable consequence will be a greater diversification of supply, reshoring and shortening of supply chains, especially for items deemed to be critical to national security, such as pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

The desire to lessen dependence on China for key products reflects, in part, a deep suspicion of the motives of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government by many in the western world, including in Canada. COVID-19 has deepened the fractures that were already evident between China and those in the West who mistrust Chinese motives and seek economic decoupling. China’s role in the pandemic is having a negative impact on Canadian public opinion, making it even more difficult for the Trudeau government to repair relations with Beijing. On the other hand, the reciprocal gestures of assistance and support that Canada and China have engaged in during the early phases of the pandemic could lay the groundwork for a more cooperative dialogue in the post-COVID world. There will clearly be a need for cooperation, information exchange and joint effort through the WHO and other forums to find a permanent solution to COVID-19 and to prevent a recurrence of another similar strain of coronavirus. This is especially true now that the US appears to be targeting the WHO as a scapegoat. These shared post-COVID interests could be a channel for a positive dialogue that could help ease bilateral tensions. Whether a new climate of cooperation would help improve the situation of the “two Michaels” is an open question, but it cannot hurt.

However, if the dominant narrative becomes one that puts all blame on China for the coronavirus because of early cover-ups and delayed action, any chance for improved relations will be gone and an opportunity will be missed. Moreover, this will be counter-productive in terms of preparing for future pandemics as well as taking the kind of concerted international action this is required to get the global economy restarted. At the end of the day, looking back and pointing fingers is not going to solve the challenge of COVID. There is plenty of blame to go around, including the way that China let down its own citizens by needless delay and suppression of information.

China carelessly let the beast out of the cage, but other countries failed to heed the warnings and take timely action themselves, allowing the beast to run wild. The WHO is also not blameless, although it is dependent on cooperation from national governments and cannot compel them to disclose information or take action. Particularly unfortunate is the inadequate circulation of early warnings from Taiwan owing to limitations imposed on Taiwan’s participation in the WHO’s work because of political objections from Beijing. There are lessons to be learned but now we must all pull together to kill the beast. Rather than blame, we need to look ahead to better information flow, greater transparency and cooperation, and reliance on international science-based efforts to defeat the virus. Canada can play a constructive role to help make that happen. The way the Trudeau government has handled the international issues arising from COVID so far is a good start.

The fate of Meng Wanzhou, the two Michaels, and even whether Canada can successfully manage participation by Huawei in its 5G rollout in a way that will bring economic benefit while protecting security, remain undecided. What is certain, however, is that using COVID-19 to demonize China will not achieve Canada’s objectives of building better international cooperation to combat global threats, nor will it get Canada-China relations back on a more solid basis in order to address ongoing bilateral problems in a more positive light.

Hugh Stephens is an Executive Fellow, The School of Public Policy; and Distinguished Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

© Hugh Stephens 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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