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Canadian Government Internal Communications Suggest Troubling Allegiances to Beijing

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: December 14, 2020
Canadian soldiers, joined by personnel from British, US, and Afghan forces, attend a Remembrance Day ceremony at Forward Operating Base Masum Gar in Panjwayi district, Kandahar province, 11 November 2006. (Image: JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP via Getty Images)
Canadian soldiers, joined by personnel from British, U.S., and Afghan forces, attend a Remembrance Day ceremony at Forward Operating Base Masum Gar in Panjwayi district, Kandahar province, 11 November 2006. (Image: JOHN D MCHUGH / AFP via Getty Images)

Canadian independent outlet Rebel News recently obtained a 34-page document from the Trudeau government under an Access to Information Act (AIA) request in a completely unredacted format. It purports to reveal conciliatory Canadian government diplomatic and military engagements with Communist China that occurred shortly after Beijing arrested two Canadian citizens in China on business. 

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, or the “Two Michaels” as often referred to by Canadian media, were detained as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018. The U.S. then requested her extradition. 

After Meng’s arrest, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) threatened Canada publicly with “dire” consequences if Meng were not released. On Dec. 10, Kovrig and Spavor were arrested.

For more than two years, Kovrig and Spavor have been imprisoned without trial.

Michael Kovrig (R) and Michael Spavor, currently) held in custody in China without trial. (Image: Facebook)

Led by former Postmedia journalist Ezra Levant, Rebel News submitted a request for Canadian government documents in April of 2019 after staff saw an article posted on April 22 by Sputnik, a Russian state-run media. The Russian article said that representatives of more than 60 countries had visited China for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s 70th anniversary in Qingdao. 

Specifically, the article noted high-ranking Canadian representatives who had attended the event. 

In a Rebel News Youtube video, Levant stated the Canadian Embassy had no record of or comment about attending the event on their website. Likewise, there were no public press releases by Ottawa to corroborate or refute the Sputnik story.

The Canadian government declined to answer Rebel’s AIA request before the 2019 federal election, which saw Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party lose its majority in the government. The government released the completely unredacted documents 19 months later. 

While the Sputnik article claimed that the United States had also attended the event, Business Insider reported a slightly different story.  In an “apparent snub” to China, the American presence was limited to a“defence attaché from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.”

Scheduled engagements

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (L) shakes hands with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at the end of a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 4, 2017. (Image: FRED DUFOUR / AFP via Getty Images)

The Canadian government documents show more than 15 scheduled engagements between the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2019 alone. The documents include the following: an events calendar for the Canadian Embassy in China; a secret-classification Five Eyes brief about the extreme reaction to France Navy frigate FS Vendemiaire’s travel through the Taiwan Strait in April, 2019;  multiple email chains classified secret-CEO (Canadian Eyes Only); a Memorandum for Action from Global Affairs Canada to the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; and an unclassified annex. 

Canadian public sentiment on China hardened after the arrest of the Two Michaels. Canadian citizens demanded an assertion of Canadian values and distancing from China by the federal government. However, the government calendar shows that the Canadian Embassy in China quietly held 14 friendly engagements in China between April and December of 2019. 

Notably, in June, Canada sent Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, to Hangzhou for “ministerial dialogue on environment and climate change.” She also attended the Annual General Meeting of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) also participated in the Oct. 7 Military World Games in Wuhan.

Canadian military hampered

Antoine Nouvet, Senior Policy Officer for Global Affairs Canada, drafted a letter  to attach to the Memorandum for Action. It stated that Global Affairs Canada should  “assist DND/CAF in making decisions in the context of recent events in Canada-China relations… Given the heightened scrutiny, any decision by Canada to reduce/cut ties should be carefully considered to avoid sending any unhelpful or unintended messages.”

The “recent events” referred specifically to “China’s response to the U.S. extradition request for Ms. Meng Wanzhou and the resulting Canadian consular cases.”

Throughout the email chains included in the documents, Meng Wanzhou is always referred to as “Ms. Meng Wanzhou.” In contrast, the Two Michaels are always referred to as the “consular cases.” The verbiage of “unhelpful or unintended messages” is also repeated throughout the Global Affairs Canada (GAC) emails. 

Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou after her court hearing on December 11. (Image: YouTube / Screenshot)

The draft letter addressed Jody Thomas, Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defense, with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ian Shugart, being “recommended” by GAC to sign.

The letter also stated that “DND/CAF engagements with China should be guided” by principles such as: “Canada does not want to be the partner that is reducing normal bilateral interactions;” and “There is still a desire to maintain an ongoing relationship with China, while recognizing and managing the risks.”

Deputy Minister Thomas was instructed that it was “essential that GAC be consulted before any activities are cancelled/postponed, particularly initiatives previously agreed to between DND/CAF and the People’s Liberation Army.”

“At this time, GAC would not support postponing/cancelling peacekeeping training.”

Thomas was also instructed by Shugart that should the Canadian military decide to delay or cancel initiatives with the PLA, “this should follow consultation with GAC and be paired with careful communications strategies to avoid becoming inadvertently linked to the current situation.”

The unclassified Annex listing CAF and PLA 2019 engagements noted only one item under the header Engagement Potentially Paused: PLA members participate in winter survival training at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Petawawa. This showed that Canada was supposed to train CCP soldiers on Canadian soil in specialized cold weather survival techniques.

Under “Engagements Not Yet Scheduled or Confirmed” were a further pair of events that would host the PLA in Canada: Military Education Commanders Dialogue and CAF-PLA Defence Coordination Dialogue. 

Both events were attended by PLA delegations where one and two-star Chinese generals were present. 

Five Eyes concerned, or only the Trump administration?

A January email chain between GAC officials states that “there are other reasons  behind their [DND/CAF] interest in disengaging” from the PLA. These correspondences were written as the GAC officials drafted the guidance letter to Deputy Minister Thomas and Nichola Payne, another Senior Policy Advisor for Global Affairs Canada. 

“From our perspective it also perhaps to be related [sic] to a desire to be fully aligned with FEYs [Five Eyes], particularly the U.S., whose approach has shifted under the Trump Administration.”

Nouvet, the Global Affairs Canada senior policy officer, reiterated the notion of the U.S. being the only Five Eyes partner concerned about cooperation between the CAF and the PLA. He singles out the United State’s concern, asking “whether several Five Eye countries have expressed concerns about knowledge transfer, versus the U.S. only.”

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 04:  Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) accompanies Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2017 in Beijing, China. At the invitation of Premier Li Keqiang of the State Council of China, Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau will pay an official visit to China from Dec 3 to 7.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) accompanies Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2017 in Beijing, China. (Image: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

In email communication with Uros Maksimovic, Senior Policy Officer and Directorate of Asia-Pacific Policy at the DND in January, Nouvet emphasizes that only the Trump Administration is concerned. Nouvet writes: “Are there additional countries than the U.S. that have expressed concerns? I seem to recall Australia may have voiced concerns about the Winter Training, but this seems to have dropped.

“Unless there are other countries voicing concerning [sic] to DND/CAF, it would seem concerns are from the U.S. rather than Five Eyes.”

Hegemonic ambitions in Beijing

Joya Donnelly is part of the Beijing Embassy’s Government Relations team and political affairs advisor to current Canadian Ambassador to China Dominic Barton. In an email titled Political Round-Up, she discussed a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Chinese regime surveillance in Xinjiang, the northwestern region where more than 1 million are imprisoned for their faith or ethnicity. 

The section titled Xinjiang Digest states that HRW reported on a “smartphone app that authorities are using in Xinjiang to collect a ‘vast array of personal information’ (including location, religion, finances, biometric data, whether a person uses WhatsApp, and flags people as ‘suspicious’).”

The email chain confirmed that the Canadian Embassy in Beijing “has seen this app in use at police checkpoints in Xinjiang.” 

The thread also discussed Switzerland joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its attendance at the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) held in Beijing in April.

In the thread, the BRF is described as a multilateral initiative. It “characterized the BRF as primarily an exercise in pageantry, reflecting an approach which they call ‘multilatéralisme à la Chinoise’ and which a French diplomat refers to as ‘multibilatéralisme.’” 

The thread describes a model which would have BRI partner countries negotiate with each other with CCP oversight as the primary intermediary. “This describes the hub-and-spoke model by which China negotiates bilaterally with a host of partners under a largely symbolic umbrella organization.”

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