COMMENTARY: Report highlights scale of China’s ‘coercive’ diplomacy

Canada is China’s second-biggest target for coercive diplomacy, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The Canberra-based defence and strategic policy think tank has just published a report that closely traces how China’s Communist dictatorship shamelessly uses bullying to try to achieve political and economic advantage and support its expansionist plans.

ASPI’s research has not turned up anything particularly new about how Red China operates overseas. What was a revelation is the breathtaking scale of China’s coercion. The 152 open-source cases that the academics looked at demonstrate the globe-girdling ambitions of Beijing’s “us against the world” foreign policy. It focuses on eight common tactics that it says China uses to try to force other countries to submit to its wishes.

Of the 27 countries targeted by China, Australia has been hit 17 times, followed by Canada, which has been targeted in 10 attacks, and the U.S., which has been targeted nine times.

The institute’s findings help explain the Australian government’s rapidly emerging policy of standing up to China’s bellicosity. Canberra’s tough stance is in stark contrast to Ottawa’s flaccid, conciliatory approach to dealing with Beijing’s provocations and mendacity, which have gotten Canada nowhere.

President Xi Jinping’s frequent modus operandi is to have foreign ministry spokesmen, ambassadors and state media insult, menace and use inflammatory language against countries that displease it. These presage reprisals such official bans on agricultural products and unofficial boycotts on automobile exports.

As Canadians have been shocked to discover over the past two years, Beijing now almost routinely kidnaps foreign nationals to further national aims and cuts off imports such as pork, beef or canola for often contrived reasons such as unproven risks to public health.

One early example of China’s cutthroat diplomacy was a ban in 2010 on imports of Norwegian salmon because it objected to a Nobel peace prize being presented to a Chinese dissident in Oslo. More recently, Australian barley and wine have been targeted. The reason this time: Canberra had the temerity to seek an international investigation into whether Beijing initially covered up the lethality of the coronavirus and how it was transmitted after it began infecting people in Wuhan last December.

South Korea ran afoul of China over its installation of U.S.-made anti-missile defences. For this transgression, popular Korean singers and actors were refused entry to China, Korean stores in China were boycotted, and Chinese tourists were ordered to steer clear of Korea.

Similar bans have been imposed at times on Chinese citizens travelling to the Philippines and even the tiny Pacific atoll of Palau. Chinese tourists have also been told from time to time to stop visiting democratic Taiwan for a number of reasons, but mostly when tensions flare over the island state’s refusal to accept that it is a province of China.

Then there is Huawei’s 5G network. China has threatened unspecified retaliation against many countries, including minnows such as the Faroe Islands, if the Shenzhen-based telecoms giant is not allowed to install telephone systems that western intelligence services believe can be used to spy on the host nation.

Threatening grave business repercussions, China has also convinced airlines such as Air Canada to omit Taiwan from its maps and caused the National Basketball Association to make grovelling apologies for having allegedly hurt the feelings of the Chinese people because one team’s general manager tweeted support for demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Aside from Canada, Japan and Australia have had their nationals seized and thrown into China’s opaque, politically rigged legal system. The most recent Australian case involves the disappearance in Beijing late last month of a Chinese-Australian television anchor.

Sweden’s relations with China are especially strained. They were first poisoned years ago when a Swedish-Chinese writer and publisher was jailed for criticizing China. The day before the author, Gui Minhai, was to be awarded a prize this year by Sweden’s PEN, China’s ambassador to Stockholm, Gui Congyou, told Swedish Public Radio: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.”

Channelling the crude messaging of China’s former ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, who accused his host nation of “white supremacy” in calling for the release of the Two Michaels, Gui Congyou threatened to ban Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and Foreign minister Ann Lind from his country if they showed at the ceremony honouring Gui Minhai. They were present, of course, causing even greater Chinese anger.

China is most sensitive to criticisms of its designs on Taiwan and its brazen claim to most of the South China Sea and parts of the East China Sea. A visit to Taiwan by Czech officials over the past few days has been the latest incident that has China in a tizzy and threatening major recriminations.

Other sore points include any overseas discussion of China’s gross mistreatment of Tibetans, Galun Fong followers, the Uighur Muslim minority and now, how Beijing is eliminating Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms and detaining critics who try to leave the supposedly semi-autonomous enclave.

ASPI has suggested the best way to monitor and take collective security measures against Chinese intimidation may be through greater sharing of information among the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S.). But because so much of what China does takes place in the Indo-Pacific it would also be prudent to expand information sharing beyond another intelligence grouping known as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the U.S).

Canada has not taken any strong independent position on Chinese misdeeds and has chosen to exclude itself from the Quad. Another omission is that Ottawa does not want to be a party to an agreement currently being negotiated between India, Japan and Australia to reduce supply chain independence on China especially in key areas such as pharmaceuticals and health care supplies.

Getting chummier with India makes sense for Canada for many reasons including the trade opportunities there. It could also show solidarity with Delhi whose relations with China are now in a parlous state. This has been highlighted by a potentially explosive border dispute with China in the Himalayas, where an Indian commando was killed a few days ago defending Indian territory.

China must reckon coercion works because until now it has mostly had its way. Rather than resist China by itself, it makes far more sense for Canada to show unity with the Five Eyes, seek membership in the Quad and pursue new trade agreements across Asia.

Like-minded countries must frequently compare notes about China and devise common strategies to confront its taunts and hardball tactics. Otherwise, Xi’s repressive schemes will inevitably triumph.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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