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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping after taking part in the closing session at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Indonesia in November 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Tackling Chinese interference: What lessons can Canada learn from Australia?

In the 2023 federal budget, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government plans to earmark $13.5 million over five years for Public Safety Canada to establish a National Counter-Foreign Interference Office aimed at cracking down on foreign interference, threats and covert activities.

The move comes amid growing concerns in Canada about interference by foreign agents, particularly the influence of the Chinese government. For that reason, the announcement explicitly points out that China is an authoritarian regime that can act with impunity and meddle in the affairs of democracies.

China’s growing ambition to assert global influence is causing international concern about Beijing’s intentions. Canada isn’t alone in countering potential interference from China.

As a pioneer in this area, Australia passed anti-foreign interference legislation in 2018. Although Canada and Australia face quite different circumstances regarding China, the Australian experience still offers many points of reference for Canada before it launches the National Counter-Foreign Interference Office.

Warnings from China to Australia

In late 2017, Chinese media slammed Australia’s proposal of the anti-foreign interference law, considering it an anti-China action, and warned of consequences if Australia’s “anti-Chinese hysteria” continued.

What frustrated China was not the proposal per se, but the language that Malcolm Turnbull, then the Australian prime minister, used in chastising China over the issue of foreign interference.

Speaking Mandarin, Turnbull invoked Mao Zedong’s famous 1949 slogan “the Chinese people have stood up” to declare Australia would “stand up” against China’s meddling in Australia’s domestic affairs.

Kevin Rudd, another former Australian prime minister, was in Beijing at the time Turnbull made his comments. He alleged the discussion of Australia’s anti-foreign interference law was not getting much attention from Beijing or Chinese society until Turnbull picked the phrase that Mao used and blabbed it out in his own appalling rendition of Chinese.

A grey-haired man in a dark suit and orange tie speaks into a microphone.
In this February 2018 photo, Malcolm Turnbull, then the Australian prime minister, speaks during the National Governors Association 2018 winter meeting in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

While Beijing may be unhappy with the establishment of Canada’s new office, it’s unlikely to use economic coercion to punish Canada — it didn’t take that approach with Australia in 2018, after all.

Bilateral trade between China and Australia remained robust and seemed unaffected by the political dispute, although Australia’s economic dependence upon China’s imports gives Beijing the means to retaliate at any time.

Canada has less economic exposure to China than Australia does. But Ottawa still cannot take that for granted. China is now dealing with its domestic post-pandemic social and economic recovery, with less strategic flexibility to retaliate against Canada.

But if China feels continually provoked by Ottawa, retaliation will come.

That means the National Counter-Foreign Interference Office should be country-agnostic — designed to apply to any country’s misconduct, whether it’s China, Russia, Iran or the United States.

The diplomatic language used by Ottawa should be neutral and unprovocative. That will help Canada avoid worsening the conflict with China, but will also ensure the new institution is considered more legitimate and durable.

Frozen packages of beef filets with the flags of Australia, the U.S. and Canada.
Frozen beef filets from Australia, the United States and Canada are on sale at a supermarket in Beijing. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Mindful of side-effects

The idea of a wide-ranging threat to national security from Chinese influence emerged in Australia almost 10 years ago. Intelligence officials, politicians and journalists identified China as a source of existential threat that quickly gained policy traction.

But as recent research shows, the scope quickly expanded. Along with actions by the Chinese government, Australian officials have also considered many non-governmental organizations and people, including Chinese private enterprise, Chinese scholars and international students, as potential security threats.

This stance has had side-effects, including a surge in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Academic collaborations between Australian and Chinese universities have also partially stagnated in the wake of allegations Beijing used these connections to fuel its military modernization and steal intellectual property. Australian universities have been portrayed as “modern battlegrounds of covert influence and interference.”

More recently, the Australian-Chinese voters have abandoned the right-wing coalition government and Liberal Party in both federal and New South Wales elections due to concerns about what they view as alarmist anti-Chinese platforms.

Canada is in a similar situation given its sizeable Chinese diaspora and the fact that Canadian universities have developed vibrant research collaborations with their Chinese counterparts.

Read more: Why Alberta must rethink its ban on Canada-China university collaborations

Harshly singling out China could result in damaging social cohesion and undermining Canada as an open, transparent and multicultural democracy.

That means Canada’s National Counter-Foreign Interference Office should not allow false allegations to propagate. It should focus on its purpose of defending sovereignty and not cause further risk to Canadian society.

Two women talk as they sit at a table with microphones in front of them.
Jody Thomas, National Security and Intelligence Advisor, left, and Cindy Termorshuizen, Associate Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, wait to appear as witnesses at a parliamentary committed into foreign election interference in March 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Diplomacy focus

Australia’s China policy under the coalition government that was defeated a year ago has been widely criticized for lacking diplomacy.

The coalition devoted a lot of effort to balance China’s regional and global ambitions, but ignored the fact that China was Australia’s largest trade partner and that Australian national interests should not be dictated by security agencies. Dealing with China required a more multi-dimensional approach.

Read more: With a new Australian government and foreign minister comes fresh hope for Australia-China relations

Since the Labor party came to power last May, Australia’s China policy has become more dynamic. The uptick in diplomacy has diminished the hostile atmosphere and paved the way for normalizing bilateral trade. The approach has reassured Beijing without compromising on the principles and core values of Australian society.

Canada’s leaders should do the same and weigh China’s immediate and future importance to Canada carefully. If cutting ties completely with China isn’t a feasible option, then Ottawa should be more imaginative in designing its China policy and keep the relationship moving in a direction that best serves the overall interests of Canada.

Diplomacy and offering moderate reassurances to Beijing could help Ottawa resolve some outstanding substantive issues with China — or at least finesse the problems — and eventually reframe the bilateral relationship.

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