By Michael C. Williams
The confrontation between Canada and China set off by the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has escalated to near-crisis proportions. Canadian citizens have been detained, diplomats dismissed, ominous words uttered. Blame for the situation has been dispersed liberally. Canada stands condemned of indecisive or naive leadership, as well as unguarded diplomacy. China, in turn, is accused of crude and intransigent responses that reveal its bullying nature and dangerous contempt for the rule of law. Though these charges raise important questions, they fail to capture crucial wider geopolitical shifts and strategies that underpin the difficulties between the two countries. At the centre of the Canada–China confrontation stands the United States and the possible emergence of what might be called the Trump doctrine.
The notion of a Trump doctrine may seem a stretch when looking at recent American foreign policy. Doctrines are characterized by clarity and consistency of purpose, whereas the current administration, especially in the eyes of its critics, is chaotic and directionless. As in so many areas of politics today, appearances can be deceiving, and none more so than with America’s role in the Canada–China standoff. Far from directionless, it is an illustration of the Trump doctrine in action — a strategy focused on retreating from globalism to regionalism, weakening multilateralism, and repurposing internationalist policy instruments (particularly international law) for nationalist, America First ends.
The US indictments against Ms. Meng combine two sets of charges. The first refers to violations of alleged theft by Huawei of US trade secrets. The second, however, primarily involves sanctions against Iran — in short, the unilateral assertion of legal extra-territoriality that the US has increasingly used in attempts to influence or coerce the actions of other states. Bundling the two sets of charges together involves countries like Canada (and other “international rule of law” allies) not only in possibly extraditing citizens of powerful foreign states, but more importantly, potentially supporting America’s increasing strategic use of legal extra-territoriality.
While it is possible to debate the merits of the American approach, it is not a simple expression of the “rule of law” as traditionally understood. It is a set of charges issued largely unilaterally, whose means of adjudication is often opaque and subject to the discretion of the president. This was clearly illustrated in the case of the Chinese telecom company ZTE, which was nearly bankrupted by the possibility of American legal action before being let off the hook by President Trump, a possibility that the president has suggested might also resolve the Meng situation. This melding of legal process and discretionary power is an important element of the emerging Trump doctrine.
Seen in this light, the American extradition request is an instrument and expression of wider strategic goals. The first and most oft-noted of these goals is to restrain China’s economic and political reach by curtailing the ability of Chinese companies to operate in areas the US deems undesirable.
Second, it targets the increasingly transnational Chinese elite whose members — such as Meng — have adopted second-country residences in Canada and elsewhere for lifestyle reasons and as insurance against developments in China that might affect them adversely. The US extradition initiative seeks to transform these insurance policies into vulnerabilities, destabilizing the Chinese elite and influencing its actions.
Third, the strategy seeks to goad China into reactions that will cast it in a negative light — a violator of the rule of law, international norms, and human rights. China has fallen into this trap, as its actions against Canadian citizens in China and its ineffectually bellicose diplomacy reveal. The reputational costs have been high, and its reaction has undermined China’s claim that it can take up the mantle of defending and promoting multilateral institutions, making those institutions weaker and more dependent on US discretion.
Finally, American actions strengthen the regionalist orientation of the Trump doctrine, serving American, not Canadian, interests. The political costs of the US legal strategy have been borne by Canada, which has been forced into a confrontation with China that it did not want. At the same time, the US has succeeded in driving a wedge between Canada and China precisely when Canada, bruised by its treatment by the Americans in the USMCA negotiations, was looking to expand its economic alternatives by deepening relations with China. With one seemingly innocuous legal device, the United States succeeded in impairing this relationship and binding Canada more closely to the US economically and politically.
The Canadian–Chinese confrontation is thus less a morality tale of legality versus tyranny than a striking success for an American administration often accused of diplomatic ineptitude. Perhaps these positive outcomes for the US were a matter of luck rather than calculation. But it is also worth considering whether they might reflect the emergence of a new strategic design — one with important implications for Canada. In this view, a crisis for Canada is by no means a crisis for the US. On the contrary, it may be very much in America’s interests, which helps explain the administration’s at best lukewarm support for its northern neighbour on this issue. Canada could scarcely refuse to consider the American extradition request. Yet in following its legal procedures, Canada became the instrument of a wider geopolitical struggle — and to some extent its victim.
No doubt Canadian (and Chinese) decision-making in this situation could have been better, and there are important issues of political principle and the rule of law at stake. Taking account of American strategy and interests is not to argue that the Chinese position is justified, nor to support Chinese claims that Ms. Meng’s detention is purely “political.” It also does not entail an admiration or endorsement of the direction of American foreign policy. But a little realism, and a willingness to take seriously the possible emergence of a Trump doctrine, may provide the basis for better understanding the difficult situation Canada finds itself in, and the challenges of finding a way forward.