Biden says he wants to 'confront' China. Is Trudeau willing to go along?

There has been much talk lately of a new "D-10" group of nations emerging from the G7 summit in Cornwall, England. This would include the existing G7 nations, India, Australia and South Korea in an explicitly democratic alliance to counter Chinese aggression and expansionism. Canada will face pressure to join.

As Biden and Johnson seek to forge an anti-China coalition of democracies, Canada weighs its options

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, take part in a virtual press conference in April. Trudeau might find himself under pressure at this weekend's G7 summit to take a more aggressive stance against China. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Leaders of the G7 countries are gathering this weekend for talks that are certain to be dominated by just three topics: COVID-19, climate change and China. But it's the last topic that could end up dominating the discussion.

The summit may not produce a moment like Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech, now widely seen as marking the start of the Cold War. But there has been a chorus of Western establishment voices on both sides of the Atlantic warning of the threat posed by Chinese-style authoritarianism and describing this moment as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to unite against it.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed an expanded alliance of democratic nations. He already has a working title for the new alliance: the D-10. The "D" is for democracy and the 10 are the traditional Group of Seven nations plus three governments that are attending the Cornish summit as guests: India, Australia and South Korea.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been talking about an expanded association of democratic countries. (Reuters/Henry Nicholls)

Those three countries have more in common than elective democracy, of course. They also all have serious issues with China — which is why they are presumptive allies in a world that appears to be dividing, once again, into antagonistic blocs.

Having already hosted a successful climate summit in April, U.S. President Joe Biden has more or less cleared the decks to deal with the two topics – COVID-19 and China — which, in one respect, intersect.

'Rallying the world's democracies'

Biden spelled out his summit goals in an op-ed published on the weekend. One of the missions of this new alliance, he wrote, would be "confronting the harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia."

'The West' is looking somewhat tattered and frayed after four years of President Donald Trump. Frequently contemptuous of international commitments, friendly with dictators and aggressive toward allies, Trump caused a well-documented plunge in European and global confidence in the United States' ability to do the right thing.

Brexit and an uneven response to the pandemic have strained ties within Europe as well. 

But there is one issue that unites European and North American governments of all political stripes, and also enjoys rare cross-party consensus in the polarized U.S. political scene.

That issue is mistrust of the Chinese Communist Party, an organization that has more card-carrying members than most G7 nations have people.

CCP losing friends abroad

"China's increasingly aggressive diplomacy, rhetoric and policy" are leading other countries to unite against it, says Ho-Fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University, citing a range of actions against different countries.

"Penalizing Australia for getting too close to the U.S., and also sanctioning European diplomats and scholars over their concerns about the Uyghurs. It's actually making this kind of alliance-building to confront China easier for the U.S."

Countries such as Germany that once might have fretted about the car sales they stood to lose in China now feel aggrieved by China's aggressive diplomatic moves.

"It creates a kind of a backlash that makes it very difficult politically in Europe right now, too, for anybody who want to say nice things about China, or say that Europe should improve relations with China," said Hung.

India, too, is morphing from a "frenemy" of China into more of an adversary, he said — particularly since Chinese troops appear to have ambushed and bludgeoned to death a group of Indian soldiers stationed on the two countries' remote Himalayan border.

"China's influence in Sri Lanka and Pakistan is worrying India that they are encircled by the friends of China," said Hung. "India also hosts the Tibetan government in exile that China is very unhappy about."

India also feels outmatched by a country that equals it in population but has a GDP and a defence budget more than four times bigger. "So India definitely will be very happy to be in this coalition" against China, although it's less interested in quarrels with Russia, said Hung.

An alliance of pariahs

If a 'D-10' alliance emerges, with the countries gathering this week in England at its core, a large number of countries likely would affiliate themselves more or less closely with it — including many of China's nervous neighbours such as Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia.

China probably would have a much weaker alliance behind it, said Hung.

China's primary potential allies in a bipolar world, said Hung, "are the countries that have little choice but to rely on China, on its market and on its financial system. The countries that are sanctioned by the U.S. and Western coalition like Russia and Iran and of course, North Korea as well. They need China's financial power, market and resources to alleviate the negative impact of the Western sanctions.

"They have to stick with China. But they are not the kind of friends that share fundamental values or even geopolitical interests."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during their meeting in Beijing, China, Friday, April 26, 2019. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Associated Press)

Hung said the Western alliance, though stretched and tested, is much deeper. "It has a long history as a democratic alliance that went through the two world wars and the Cold War together."

Canada's own quarrel

Canada's dispute with China centres on the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. For Trudeau, it will be important to make sure that a solution to the two Canadians' plight is part of any collective demand placed before China.

He also knows the Canadian public is in a foul mood when it comes to the government of China. He has seen all opposition parties — and even some of his own Liberal MPs — vote for parliamentary motions demanding that his government get tougher on Beijing.

Despite all the partisan rancour in the U.S., the two parties came together as Biden prepared to depart for England to pass an important bill through the Senate that aims to bolster American tech firms against Chinese rivals.

No such consensus exists in Canada. As Trudeau packed his bags for the summit, the Official Opposition issued a statement: "There's only one choice to secure Canada's future and stand up to the Chinese Communist regime, and that's Canada's Conservatives."

The demands go beyond the issue of the Canadian detainees. There are also the 300,000 Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong and cross-party pressures for Canada to act to protect the Uyghurs from persecution that Parliament has voted to call a "genocide". (Trudeau and his cabinet mostly absented themselves from Parliament that day.)

"I want to see Canada take a coordinated approach with our G7 allies, whether in sanctions or in creating a cohesive strategy towards China," said Cherie Wong of Alliance Canada Hong Kong. "What China has historically done is isolate one country and bully it. So we need to unite together with our allies."

Canada faces a choice

Former Canadian diplomat and China scholar Charles Burton said Canada faces a choice.

"There's a desire for there to be more concerted action by an alliance of nations which are affected by China's behaviour in the absence of any effective UN ability to respond, because China is a permanent member of the Security Council and therefore able to veto anything significant," he said.

"Is Canada prepared to stand up for the Australians who are subject to hostage diplomacy as we expect the Australians to stand up for our Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor? Are we prepared to actually engage in programming which will displease the Chinese government in concert with our allies?

"Or do we want to leave this to other powers and hope that if Canada stands relatively neutral, that we will be able to protect our market position in China?"

Burton wants a more confrontational Canadian approach. He said his expectations are low.

Perhaps in anticipation of the summit, China has been sending friendly signals to the world in recent days.

Gordon Houlden, another former diplomat and China scholar who heads the China Institute at the University of Alberta, said the sudden talk of friendship and respect may be intended to head off the emergence of a stronger anti-China coalition.

"This is a sophisticated great power. They're well aware of a diplomatic calendar and leadership calendar globally and G7 fits within that category," he said. "To be sure. I don't think the timing is accidental."

A new Cold War?

Houlden said he sees the elements for a new Cold War — or even a hot one. "We have to fear that we're in a situation not unlike 1910 in terms of great power rivalry."

He said the world may have learned the wrong lesson from the Cold War, which ended peacefully in victory for the West.

"Even in the late Cold War, there were periods and incidents which were very risky, and there was always a possibility of miscalculation on either side, leading to some sort of nuclear catastrophe," he said.

Houlden quotes a Chinese diplomat who said "'we have no choice but to coexist, or we will co-destruct.'"

"So the idea of, well, we're going to Cold War mode and we bump along there until China implodes …. perhaps that's one outcome," he said.

"If that happens, fine, we know which side we'll be lined up on and we'll do our bit. But I'm still hopeful that we can dodge that outcome … Assuming that the new Cold War will be the same as the last one is a dangerous assumption." 


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.