In early December 2018, Sarah McIver, a Canadian teacher, was detained in China for illegal employment. She became the third Canadian citizen detained in China after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, an executive for Chinese tech giant Huawei, in Vancouver. Reports indicate up to 13 Canadians have been detained in China since Meng’s arrest, although some of them have already been released by the Chinese authorities, including McIver.
The first two Canadians detained in China, however, remain in custody. Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were both arrested on the more serious charge of harming China’s national security.
Meng’s arrest has angered China and Beijing is taking action to retaliate. However, China has adopted two different responses, approaching the issue gently with the United States – which requested Meng’s arrest – while launching strict action against Canada. In doing so, Beijing hopes to deter Canada from following the United States against China, in order to prevent Washington from forming a global and regional offensive against Beijing.
In this way, China has started a battle to force U.S. allies in the U.S.-China conflict to choose to stand on the side of Beijing – or at least not to take Washington’s side.
On the issue of Huawei, China realizes that the United States has enlisted its allies to collectively encircle the Chinese high-tech company. This sets a precedent for the United States to gather allies to suppress China in other areas in the future.
The Chinese official media Global Times published a particularly stern editorial entitled “Let the country that is invading China’s interests pay the price” on December 16, 2018. saying that “for countries which do not care about China’s interests and have extraordinary behavior, China should resolutely fight back, let it pay the price, and even suffer huge losses.” Doing so, to article reasoned, “also allows other countries to understand that China is principled”:
There is a high risk in following the U.S. to harm China’s interests. This time Canada helped the United States to detain a Huawei executive, which broke the bottom line. China needs to clearly express our attitude that we do not accept Canada’s doing so. If Canada finally extradites Meng Wanzhou to the United States, Canada will certainly pay the price of the retrogression of Canada-China relations. China needs to use practical actions to show the world the consequences of Canada’s doing so.
The commentary added, “We need to select counter-targets and make those countries be beaten very painfully. We argue that in this complex game, China should focus on the Five Eye alliance countries, especially Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. They follow the United States to harm China’s interests, especially in a step-by-step manner. Their performance is radical, and they are some of the targets that China should first hit.”
This was a public declaration that Beijing is set for retaliation against U.S. allies such as Canada and will adopt specific measures to implement the strategy of removing America’s friendly partners. In that sense, China’s measures against Canada are an example of the Chinese idiom “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.” The goal is to deter other countries from angering China at the United States’ behest.
China’s strategy of forcing U.S. friendly forces to choose to stand on the Chinese side has achieved some results already. For example, since 2012, China has succeeded in forcing some Southeast Asian countries to stand on the Chinese side in the South China Sea disputes through its sharp strength and other means. Then, China impounded Singapore’s armored vehicles in Hong Kong in November 2016, which convinced Singapore to no longer echo U.S. views over the South China Sea. Even Japan has shifted a bit to China’s side. In October 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went to Beijing and said that Japan would no longer confront China. Since then, he has been more cautious in using the term “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” as coined by the Trump administration.
In fact, Beijing believes that China has already settled the western Pacific in this sense. Now, China’s strategy of forcing U.S. allies to choose to stand on its own side is set to expand to the eastern Pacific. The Global Times editorial firmly believes that “achieving this goal or doing it to a considerable extent is very likely to be done.”
On the Huawei issue specifically, the Global Times also summed up a lesson from previous experience. The article pointed out that Australia was the first U.S. ally to follow the command of Washington to abandon the use of Huawei products. If China had taken more resolute action to respond to Australia’s decision at the time, other countries may have been more cautious about following suit.
China is deeply confident in attacking U.S. friendly forces while adopting a “soft” strategy toward the United States itself. First, China knows that almost all American allies maintain active economic and trade ties with China. China is also the largest trading partner for many of them. For example, Australia and New Zealand both count China as their largest trading partners, and Canada’s second largest trading partner is China. So China has ample measures to “deal with” these U.S. allies.
Second, Beijing does not want to undermine the consensus and progress toward a trade agreement reached between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at last year’s G20 summit. That’s why China is trying to avoid direct conflict with the United States. In addition, American allies like Canada are not as strong as the United States, making them easier targets. Therefore, in the Meng Wanzhou incident, China avoids direct confrontation with the United States, but focuses on hitting U.S. ally Canada, using this to divide and deter other countries from following the United States to encircle China.
However, it remains to be seen whether countries such as Canada and Australia will be coerced to join China’s side. To overcome the U.S. judicial and propaganda offensive against Chinese high-tech and telecommunications companies, China cannot succeed using only this tactic. Western countries have already questioned and abandoned the use of Chinese telecom service products such as those of Huawei because of the U.S. offensive. How to lift the crisis of confidence is a major problem that China is facing.
Dr. Tao Peng is an editorial writer and a senior columnist for World Journal in New York. He obtained his doctorate in political science and sociology at the University of in Germany.