For China watchers, the release of Messrs. Kovrig and Spavor from arbitrary detainment will either come to be known as “the Michaels before the storm” or, if one is more optimistic, mark the nadir of a difficult period in the bilateral relationship with the People’s Republic of China.
Then there is the U.S., which will increasingly pressure its allies to pick sides. A draft U.S. Innovation and Competition Act requires the State Department to report to Congress on how the Government of Canada plans to support the U.S. or where it disagrees with the American government over China. The size of the American political resolve is best understood by the fact that when the U.S. Senate passed the bill, it earmarked US$250 billion to support activities under the pending legislation. The faith of the bill in Congress is still not clear, but given that one of the few non-partisan issues today in Washington is the China files, it is highly probable a definitive version of the Act will be ratified by Congress and sent to the White House for signing.
As Canada finds itself increasingly stuck between a rock and a hard place, we have no alternative but to engage more deeply in Asia. Governments at all three levels (civil society, private sector, and universities) must allocate more resources to contribute diplomatically, commercially, and from a national security perspective to have a positive impact over the next two decades. Canada’s foreign policy goals must include an action plan that amounts to more than a morally correct series of press releases about defending Canadian values that have limited impact.
This would insert our country as a creative yet committed peacemaker who could assist in addressing and gradually overcoming the roadblocks created by history, vested interests, and egos.
Depending on which country’s representative you ask, and in which context, Canada is seen internationally as either a tolerable or respected intermediary. From the more directly relevant vantage point of the Six-Party Talks participants (made up of South Korea, North Korea, United States, Russia, China, and Japan), this opinion is the same.
The impact of renewed war on the Korean Peninsula cannot be understated. A war in the region would, if it escalates, make every other war since the Old Testament onward look sane.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s political courage and resolve resulted in a fragile international consensus that placed the value of Peace above the destruction of War. No doubt, his success in this endeavour was predicated on the fact that he lived closer to an era in which Ernest Hemmingway wrote, in For Whom the Bell Tolls: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary nor how justified, is not a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.”
Resolving tensions on the Korean Peninsula is equally a morally based undertaking for other reasons. The main beneficiaries of such an effort is that it is the first step to improving the lives of the people of North Korea. The mere hope that such an undertaking could provide is underscored by twenty-six million ethical reasons — one for each person who lives north of the 38th parallel.
Now, the Government of Canada should undertake the task of explaining, yet again, to Parliament, the Canadian media, and the country’s citizenry that diplomatic engagement is not an endorsement of any given country’s domestic policies or international practices. In terms of its diplomatic work, the government should balance the need for conflict resolution with a reasonable timeline for all parties to respond appropriately.
This could begin by reducing the touch-points for conflict under Canada’s new Indo-Pacific focus through a negotiated settlement with North Korea. The framework for that settlement includes demobilization of its military, and as trust is restored, nuclear disarmament wold be the goal. Each milestone forward should be rewarded with generous economic assistance. This support for economic development can come from the United Nations, EU, the United States, China, Japan, Canada, and other multilateral development agencies and banks (e.g. the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). The importance of the problem warrants a global commitment to develop civil society within the DPRK.
The delivery of this support must be tied to liberalization of the economy and a new vision for society within the DPRK.
There is a real danger that as the Post-World War II vision of peace further erodes, diplomacy stagnates into reporting on the fragmentation of globalization, or in more graphic terms, just counting the number of chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
Canada, unfortunately, can no longer accept the trajectory of history as being positive and must step front and centre to be a player again. Korea could be the place where we lay claim to such a role.
John Gruetzner is one of twenty-four founders of the China Policy Centre. Having lived and worked in Asia for 35 years, he now lives in Canada, where he works for a technology firm.