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There has to be a big broad inquiry on China’s election interference now



David Johnston cannot seriously consider his task to be making a recommendation on whether there should or should not be a full inquiry. That has to be a given now.Sean Kilpatrick

Now we know CSIS reported that Chinese diplomats discussed ways to interfere in Vancouver’s mayoral election last year, and hoped to groom friendly local politicians who might one day run for higher office. But that’s just the latest.

An Ontario Conservative MPP has stepped aside from Premier Doug Ford’s caucus because of unproven allegations he aided Beijing’s election-tampering schemes. The intelligence agency reported Chinese diplomats organized illegal donations and paid volunteers for some federal candidates in the 2021 election as they hoped to help the Liberals win another minority government.

So yes, there is going to have to be an inquiry. There’s no way around that.

And it will have to be big and broad.


The question of whether the opposition parties agree that a former Gov.-General of Canada, David Johnston, can be trusted to handle the hastily fabricated role of special rapporteur should not, in the end, be more than a sidebar. His work can be easily judged. He doesn’t have a lot of credible options.

Mr. Johnston cannot seriously consider his task to be making a recommendation on whether there should or should not be a full inquiry. That has to be a given now. He can only be making recommendations on how broad that inquiry should be – and it has to be broad – or how to fit the requirement of protecting the secrecy of intelligence gathering with the necessity of telling the public what the heck is going on.

And at this point, the inquiry must deal with two sets of issues on two tracks. One is the narrow question of whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ignored credible warnings about Beijing’s meddling. The other is the broader issue of foreign interference throughout Canada’s politics.

That second set of broader issues can’t be avoided now. There are too many concerns that Canada has slumbered while Beijing interfered. And not just that: The lack of clear answers feeds hyperventilating theories that all our elections are or were rigged and no one can be trusted.

The country needs a cool-headed review.

The interference in Vancouver’s 2022 mayoral election recounted in CSIS documents reported in The Globe and Mail should make it clear why it must have a broad scope.

The spy agency reported that China’s consul-general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, was keen to influence the race. She had been critical of then-mayor Kennedy Stewart, a former New Democrat MP, who suspended meetings with Chinese diplomats after Beijing sanctioned Canadian MP Michael Chong. The consulate warned the City of Vancouver not to declare a special relationship with the Taiwanese city, Kaohsiung. Last August, it criticized Mr. Stewart for supporting then-U. S. congressional speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.

Notice: China’s government has no reason to care about Vancouver’s municipal policies. They just don’t like a local pooh-bah who speaks out against Beijing’s line. Ms. Tong, according to CSIS, was also seeking to groom local politicians who might one day run for provincial or federal office.

It’s not clear how far those efforts went, but this is different than trying to influence a national election. It’s Beijing seeking to quash unfriendly voices and install friendly ones throughout Canada’s politics. That’s something that has to be part of an inquiry now.

Yet broad issues such as that can’t be allowed to drown out the narrower questions and have to be answered about Beijing’s interference in recent federal elections and whether Mr. Trudeau ignored credible warnings about it. An inquiry needs a two-track mandate that answers those questions first.

Mr. Johnston’s appointment as a special rapporteur was never going to be enough. That Mr. Trudeau scrambled to conjure up a new office when he was up to his eyes in political pressure to hold an inquiry meant that Mr. Johnston could never be the arbiter of these questions.

That the opposition can point to Mr. Johnston’s family being friendly with Mr. Trudeau and has had links with the non-profit Trudeau Foundation just confirm that. At best, he can provide an interim review and lead Mr. Trudeau to an inquiry.

At this point, that’s also the only outcome that is politically viable for Mr. Trudeau: not a rapporteur, but an inquiry with a capital I. One tasked to answer questions that reach into the Prime Minister’s Office, but with a mandate to look at interference across Canada’s politics.


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China, Russia face sanctions from US states now. That’s dangerous



Sanctions have become all the rage in international politics. The United States and its allies are imposing them on rivals with increasing frequency and severity. And those rivals are reciprocating where they can.

Now, American states, too, are increasingly getting in on the act. And that’s bad news — for the world, and for US foreign policy. A much-publicised episode of a Chinese balloon entering US airspace seems to have created new energy for such restrictions and has led to legislation being proposed in at least 11 states.

On Wednesday, the South Carolina State Senate passed a bill barring ownership of land in the state by citizens of US geopolitical adversaries Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba. The bill’s top sponsor even compared a planned purchase of South Carolina land by a Chinese biomedical firm with the Trojan Horse plot of Greek mythology.

Meanwhile, Texas State Senator Lois Kolkhorst has proposed a similar law that has drawn strong condemnation on human rights grounds but has been defended by Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor. A simple reading of the original version of this bill would lead one to conclude that any individual who holds citizenship from any of the mentioned countries, or any firms which they own, would be barred from owning property. This would have included American citizens who hold dual citizenship. Since then, the language has been softened to protect dual citizens and permanent residents but not citizens of those countries residing in Texas on a visa.


Implementation of such language would impose new and unusual due diligence requirements on common land transactions. Meanwhile, creating special restrictions on various immigrant communities to own property poses human rights concerns.

Existing sanctions laws and Treasury Department designations already block leaders from those American adversaries from transferring money into the US or owning property in the country. Meanwhile, recently introduced federal legislation aims to ban US adversaries from purchasing large swaths of farmland in the US.

So why would a state engage in what is essentially a foreign policy and national security matter?

Why sanction?

On the one hand, some scholars see sanctions as often being a product of domestic politics, aimed at portraying muscle to the electorate, at times influenced by pressure groups such as “ethnic lobbies”. Those in this camp of scholars are more inclined to believe that sanctions are not particularly effective. If sanctions are for the satisfaction of domestic onlookers, they will not be designed and implemented with an eye towards efficacy and the security context.

Other scholars, however, argue that sanctions are indeed imposed due to a meaningful effort to address national security concerns.

Like many in the national security decision-making scholarship community, I feel both of these binary constructions frequently fail when confronted with the history of economic sanctions. The truth is that foreign policy choices are a product of complex national security matrices that accommodate both foreign policy and domestic political considerations.

Who sanctions?

Yet irrespective of one’s overall view on the efficacy of sanctions more broadly, it is hard for anyone to deny that policies against foreign nationals adopted by state governments can have little explanation other than domestic and even local politics.

In the US, the executive branch has always been best suited to make foreign policy decisions due to its clear mandate and wherewithal in this field. Congress has a constitutional role in foreign policy matters but it’s far more likely to be influenced by domestic political pressures and national anxieties.

The executive branch largely controlled sanctions policy throughout the Cold War era. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, as major threats to the homeland faded, Congressional and sub-federal forces became increasingly involved in this field.

While Congress has largely ceded its war power authority in the modern era, it has become more active in sanctioning due to an impulse of members to be seen as projecting power against American adversaries even when it interferes with the president’s efforts to engage in strategic policy.

What about state legislators and governors? They have no real national security staff nor the relevant mandate, as their elections almost always lack any meaningful foreign policy discussion and are decided based on provincial issues, whether taxes or abortion rights.

Yet their meddling in foreign policy isn’t superfluous — it can actually be reckless, for global diplomacy and for US foreign policy. Here’s how.

The folly of state sanctions

As written, the mentioned measures are unlikely to meaningfully interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy. But one can imagine a scenario in which sanctions imposed by states do just that.

New York state and California preside over major nodes of the global banking community and the international technology supply chain. Texas itself is a major player in global energy markets. Other states can wield a more narrow version of such powers as well.

There are already examples of when New York State has targeted European firms for their perceived violation of sanctions, ignoring objections at the federal level. States can, as the federal government has often done, impose restrictions on firms operating in their jurisdiction in a way that has extraterritorial consequences.

This in turn sets up a precarious dynamic. The federal government might have to mollify or negotiate with state governments led by ambitious politicians responding to special interests or catering to local constituencies.

Equally, state governments of the party in opposition can actively undercut diplomatic efforts of the federal government using such sanctions. For example, a federal effort to ease sanctions on Cuba could create political momentum for state sanctions in Florida, where families of those who fled communist rule are a powerful lobby.

Ultimately, sanctions are a tool of foreign policy and the capacity to modulate or even repeal them is critical to accomplishing the political goals behind sanctions campaigns. For the president or Congress to have to lobby with state governments, each representing a fraction of the overall population, to alter America’s sanctions against a country would represent a bizarre new obstacle to the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy obligations.

The proposed Texas and South Carolina laws are textbook examples of sanctions as political grandstanding meant for domestic consumption. They are also a reminder of the jingoistic zeal that can be nurtured and exploited by foreign policy amateurs at the state level.

As we embark upon what scholar Peter A G van Bergeijk calls the “second wave” of global sanctions, states will likely look further to getting in on the act with human rights and global affairs.

Washington’s basic ability to carry out a coherent foreign policy hangs in the balance.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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Beijing denies meddling after MP Han Dong’s resignation from Liberal caucus



OTTAWA — Beijing says it has nothing to say about ongoing allegations that China has meddled in Canadian affairs, including those regarding a member of Parliament who has left the Liberal caucus.

Han Dong is now sitting as an Independent as the Liberal government has a rapporteur investigate claims of Chinese interference, including allegations the Toronto MP willingly received electoral support through Chinese officials.

Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus Wednesday night after Global News, citing unnamed security sources, published a report alleging that he spoke about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with a Chinese diplomat in Toronto in February 2021.

The MP says he met with the diplomat but disputes any suggestion that he urged China to delay releasing the two Canadian men, who by that point had been detained for more than two years.


Dong told the House of Commons he would defend himself “against these absolutely untrue claims” and that he did nothing to cause Spavor and Kovrig any harm.

Asked about Dong’s resignation at a press conference today in Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry says “the Canadian side may be in a better position” to comment, and that “China opposes interference in other countries’ internal affairs.”

He adds that this applies to broader allegations about Chinese interference.

“We have no interest in and will not interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” Wang Wenbin said in the official English transcript. “There should be no irresponsible comments on this.”

China’s detention of the men who became known around the world as the “two Michaels” occurred in apparent retaliation for the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Beijing has insisted the cases are not linked, despite a close alignment in the timing of each being detained and then released the same day in September 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.


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Pierre Poilievre to get face time with U.S. President Joe Biden in Ottawa



OTTAWA — Official Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre is expected to meet U.S. President Joe Biden when he visits Canada this week.

Senior U.S. administration officials confirmed Wednesday in a briefing given on the condition they not be named that Biden plans to have what is known as a “pull-aside” conversation with Poilievre.

They say the president, who is scheduled to arrive in Ottawa with first lady Jill Biden on Thursday, also plans to exchange pleasantries with other party leaders.

Earlier Wednesday, Poilievre said Conservatives want to see the White House end its “Buy American” policies, which industry leaders in Canada say risk hurting workers and the economy.


Poilievre has also called for a closure of the unofficial border crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec, and for action on the Safe Third Country agreement with the U.S.

The two-day visit to Ottawa is Biden’s first since he took office in 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.


The Canadian Press

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