The West is moving to isolate China — and Canada could reap the rewards

Over the past several days, western democracies have taken steps to constrain the Chinese Communist Party at the G7, NATO, Canada-EU and Biden-Putin summits. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to be avoiding the fray, Canada could benefit from efforts to isolate China.

It's been a bad seven days for the Communist Party of China

Biden, Trudeau differ on approaches to China

2 years ago
Duration 1:22
U.S. President Joe Biden says he is determined to stop China from becoming the world's top dog as long as it remains a dictatorship. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the G7 Summit that he doesn't share that goal.

The Chinese Communist Party was sputtering with outrage for much of the past week as one international diplomatic summit after another saw world leaders uniting to keep it in check. It had been "maliciously attacked" with "sinister intentions," its spokespeople complained.

But there was little the CCP could do to turn a tide that clearly has turned against it.

Xi Jinping's "Vision 2035" maps out a path for China to achieve world leadership over the next 14 years. That road is now looking a lot rockier — in large part due to the unifying efforts of U.S. President Joe Biden.

With his characteristic air of bonhomie and his conscious effort to expand the "western" alliance to non-western nations, Biden already has started to undo the damage his predecessor did to the principle that democracies unite in the face of authoritarian regimes.

The hits keep coming

A Chinese government spokesperson was quick to dismiss the G7 meeting that began the week as meaningless. "The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone," said a spokesperson at China's London embassy.

But therein lies the problem for the CCP: the group of countries that opposes Chinese hegemony is not small — and it's growing.

First, the G7 summit produced an imperfect but still significant consensus between North American, European, Japanese, Indian, Australian and South Korean governments on the need to counter China as one.

NATO essentially rewrote its doctrine to make China a strategic rival and work to stop the spread of CCP-style totalitarianism.

Even more importantly, NATO pledged to reach out to form new alliances in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where China has been making inroads with cash-strapped governments this century.

Biden channels Gettysburg address

Like Abraham Lincoln, who framed the struggles of his time as a test of whether any democratic nation "so conceived and so dedicated can long endure," Biden frames the conflict in ideological terms.

"I predict to you," he said in a White House news conference on March 25, "your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy. Because that is what is at stake."

Biden's "contest with autocrats," as he put it at the G7, clearly has been more effective at rallying allies than Donald Trump's anti-Chinese rhetoric, which was based on crude nationalism with an ugly dollop of racism most couldn't swallow.

For Biden, autocracy has a face — that of Xi Jinping, "who doesn't have a democratic bone in his body … who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can't function in an ever more complex world.

"They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That's not going to happen on my watch."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during a news conference at Tregenna Castle following the G7 Summit in St. Ives, Cornwall, England, on Sunday, June 13, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau struck a jarring off-note as he left the G7 for NATO, expressing indifference to the prospect of the Chinese Communist Party becoming a world hegemon.

"Is the goal that as long as China is an authoritarian one-party state, that it not become the world's top power?" Trudeau was asked at his closing news conference in Cornwall, England.

"No," he replied. "The goal of the G7 has always been the success not just of our countries and our economies, but the success of the global economy."

The question was repeated. Again Trudeau demurred, saying the goal should be to promote "the opportunity for everyone around the world to fulfil their potential."

Shifting messages

Most other democratic leaders, however, appeared fully on board with the U.S. goal of ensuring that democratic nations do not cede global dominance to China.

And at NATO, the morning after expressing indifference to CCP hegemony, Trudeau was singing from the same pro-democracy song sheet. His closing communique in Brussels said that "during the meeting, Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated Canada's unwavering commitment to NATO and to Alliance values, including individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law."

A person holds a sign with photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December, 2018, as people gather for a rally in support of democracy in Hong Kong in Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The contradictory messages illustrated how the Trudeau government still struggles with the challenge posed by China.

Since 2016, when it entered talks with the Chinese government on extraditing people from Canada to stand trial in China, the CCP has dealt Trudeau's government harsh lessons in reality.

A Liberal government that five years ago was negotiating to voluntarily hand people over to China is today consumed with getting two of its people out — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

In any event, the CCP showed no appreciation for Trudeau's stance and accused him of "smearing" China.

For the CCP, one of the most alarming aspects of this week was the fact that the alliance forming against it is not merely diplomatic or even military, but also economic.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he wants to prevent China from obtaining economic control of new commercial technologies like electric cars. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

Back in February, President Biden signalled his determination to end U.S. dependence on China as a source of strategic materials.

Those include rare earth minerals — 80 per cent of which the U.S. currently imports from China — used to make everything from motors and turbines to medical devices.

Biden also has said that electric cars and the batteries that power them are a 21st century technology he doesn't intend to allow China to dominate. His administration has ended a trade dispute with South Korean battery manufacturers as it seeks to bolster non-Chinese players.

China's loss, Canada's gain

The U.S. administration is also in talks to fund a cobalt mine in the Northwest Territories through the U.S. Export-Import Bank for use in battery cathodes. Canadian graphite is being promoted for battery anodes. Canadian companies interested in getting into the electric vehicle business can apply for U.S. government grants — a move explicitly aimed at out-competing China.

On Tuesday in Brussels, President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission told Trudeau at the conclusion of a Canada-EU summit that her trading bloc — the biggest in the world after the U.S. — is also looking to replace Chinese raw materials with Canadian ones.

"We as Europeans want to diversify our imports away from producers like China because we want more sustainability, we want less environmental damage, and we want transparency on labour conditions," she said, in a reference to allegations of forced labour in China.

A league of pariahs

The creation of something like a global alliance to constrain China would be bad news for the CCP, said Ho-Fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University — because China has nothing equivalent to the Western alliance and little hope of building one.

"The Chinese allies," said Hung, "are the countries that have little choice but to rely on China, on its market and on its financial system. They are the countries that are sanctioned by the U.S. and Western coalition like Russia, Iran and North Korea.

"So they need China's financial power and market and resources to alleviate the negative impact of the Western sanctions. They have little choice. They have to stick with China. But at the same time, this is not necessarily the kind of coalition based on values."

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they arrive for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16, 2021. (Saul Loeb/Reuters)

Allies like that are not hard to pry apart. And so, Biden completed his trifecta of summits with a meeting in Geneva with Russia's Vladimir Putin, offering him a glimpse of an alternative to a role Russia hardly savours — that of junior partner in a Chinese-led anti-democratic alliance.

Biden buttered up his Russian adversary in remarks designed to appeal to Russian pride, calling him a "worthy adversary."

The CCP has reason to fear that if the tensions between Russia and the West can be reduced, a new China-Russia split could follow shortly afterwards.

The CCP remains, beyond a doubt, the world's most powerful political entity. Its card-carrying members outnumber Canada's entire population by more than two to one and it exercises profound control over a fifth of the world's people. It also has a powerful nuclear arsenal.

But at the end of a week of summits, it also looked more alone than it has in a long time.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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