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Canada’s relationship with China rooted in a century-old tradition of imperial violence

Canadian PoliticsAsia

The Meridian Gate, front entrance to the Forbidden City, Beijing. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Canada is locked in a hostage standoff with China that doesn’t look likely to end anytime soon. As relations with the world’s most populous nation deteriorate, it is important to consider some history that is shaping the conflict and the impetus for the latest dispute. While most of the media frame the conflict in Manichean, us-versus-them terms, past and present actions by Canada and other Western states reveal a centuries-old pattern of colonialism, imperialism, military threats, diplomatic isolation and other forms of aggressive behaviour aimed at weakening and ‘containing’ China.

While the Chinese government has adopted various authoritarian measures recently, today’s conflict is still centred on efforts, led chiefly by the United States, to curtail China’s meteoric rise. Most directly, Washington has sought to stunt the growth of telecommunications giant Huawei, the “Crown Jewel of China Inc.” The US has effectively banned the world’s largest 5G network provider from building its cutting-edge broadband infrastructure and pressed others to follow suit. Canada’s arrest and continued detention of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, is connected to Washington’s efforts to curtail that company and China more generally.

This is in line with a long history of Canadian involvement in efforts to exploit and contain China. Beginning in the 1820s, the British began to dominate the ancient empire. In two wars fought over trade and diplomatic relations, notes eminent political theorist Noam Chomsky, “the British government compelled China to open its doors to opium from British India, sanctimoniously pleading the virtues of free trade as they forcefully imposed large-scale drug addiction on China.” The Opium War of 1836 is considered by many to be the beginning of China’s “Century of Humiliation.” Over that century Britain, France, Japan, Russia, Germany and the US all developed spheres of influence in China. These foreign powers succeeded in pitting the country’s regions against one another to keep China’s central government weak and disorganized.

Canada, as a loyal part of the empire, aided the British conquest of China. Some Canadians fought in China and the British commander of the Canadian Militia from 1880-1884, Lieutenant-General Richard George Amherst Luard, served there. In 1900 Canada was contracted to supply the British forces quelling the Boxer Rebellion. Canadian missionaries were also a significant force in China and they generally aided the foreign powers as detailed in When Missionaries Were Hated, an edited collection published in 2007. By 1919 there were nearly 600 Canadian missionaries in China.

Ottawa also tacitly supported Japan’s brutal 1931 invasion of China’s Manchuria region, a military campaign that left more than 20,000 dead. In the words of Hugh Llewellyn Keenleyside, the Canadian diplomat who opened the first Canadian mission in Japan, “Whatever may be thought of the moral or ethical rights of the Japanese to be in and to exercise control over Manchuria their presence there must be recognized as a stabilizing and regulating force.” Six years later the Canadian ambassador to China, Randolph Bruce, told the Toronto Star that Japan’s invasion of Nanjing—a city to the west of Manchuria—was “simply an attempt to put her neighbour country into decent shape, as she has already done in Manchuria.” Some 20,000 women were raped and tens of thousands of Chinese were killed in the six weeks after Japan entered the city, an event that came to be known ignominiously as the Rape of Nanjing.

In the fall of 1941, Ottawa sent nearly 2,000 troops to defend the British colony of Hong Kong from Japan. “Hong Kong constituted an outpost which the Commonwealth intended to hold,” read an External Affairs message to London in response to a request for troops. A number of Chinese Canadians were covertly sent into China during the Second World War partly because “whenever the Japanese capitulated, it would be useful to have on hand a team to enter Hong Kong promptly to help reestablish the British writ there.” The HMCS Prince Robert, an armed merchant cruiser, also helped the British reoccupy Hong Kong.

Chinese prisoners, possibly Boxers or Pirates, kneeling in a line before being beheaded in front of a crowd. In 1900 Canada was contracted to supply the British forces quelling the Boxer Rebellion. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

After the Second World War, Canada sided with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang against Mao’s Communists. Ottawa aided the Kuomintang by sending 170 planes and providing $60 million in export credits between 1945 and 1948. The money was granted even though some members of the Liberal cabinet opposed taking sides in the Chinese Civil War.

Mao’s government was met with hostility from Ottawa. Canada refused to recognize the Chinese government until 1970. A November 1949 External Affairs memo complained, “China must now be regarded as a potential enemy state.” Historian Steven Lee further summarized the report, writing “The rise of communist power on the mainland confronted the Atlantic Pact [NATO] powers with considerable strategic and political problems.” In Japan, continues Lee, “the US position was threatened by a potentially hostile power in China; the usefulness of Korea and Taiwan as military bases would be undermined, and in Southeast Asia, ‘the source of vital raw materials,’ Western interests were menaced by the impetus the Chinese revolution gave to communist movements.”

While they framed their actions as anti-communist, US leaders feared Chinese nationalism and worried that Mao’s revolutionary ideology would spread throughout the region. Some within Canada’s External Affairs department had similar concerns, worrying that “Communist China might dominate ‘all Asian communist states’ and form ‘a new Asian alliance—linked neither with the Soviet Union nor the United States.’”

Partly in response to Mao’s triumph, Ottawa began its first (non-European) aid program in 1950. The Colombo Plan’s primary aim was to keep the former British Asian colonies, especially India, within the Western capitalist fold.

Canadian aid to African countries was also designed to minimize Chinese influence. Led for two decades by socialist leaning Julius Nyerere, Tanzania became a major recipient of Canadian aid due to Ottawa’s concern that the former British colony might align with China. Tanzania’s request for Chinese trainers in 1964 disturbed Washington and Ottawa. A July 1969 Canadian Interdepartmental Military Assistance Committee memo explained:

Although it is clear from Tanzania’s decision to terminate our military assistance program that we have not succeeded in preventing the swing to virtual full reliance on China, we did succeed in postponing this development until the Tanzanian forces were basically organized and had acquired their own internal cohesion, which should leave them in a much better position to deal with possible Chinese subversion.


After Mao’s forces took control in 1949, the US tried to encircle the country. They supported Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, built military bases in Japan, backed a right-wing dictator in Thailand and tried to establish a pro-Western state in Vietnam. The success of China’s nationalist revolution also spurred the 1950-1953 Korean War in which eight Canadian warships and 27,000 Canadian troops participated. The war left as many as one million Chinese soldiers dead.

After pushing North Korean troops back to the 38th parallel—the artificial line dividing the North and South—the US-led force moved to conquer the entire country. United Nations troops continued north in a bid to undermine China’s new government. US officials, particularly UN force commander Douglas MacArthur, repeatedly attacked Mao’s government and before China entered the war, American aircraft bombed the country while carrying out air missions in northern Korea. Even more ominous, both MacArthur and (later) President Truman publicly discussed striking China with nuclear weapons.

UN troops pushed north even after the Chinese made it clear they would intervene to block a hostile force from approaching their border. Beijing was particularly worried about northern China’s dependence on energy from the Yalu River power station in northern Korea. From the Chinese perspective the People’s Liberation Army defended the country’s territorial integrity, which was compromised by US bombings and the control of Formosa (Taiwan) by foreign-backed forces.

Since the end of the fighting Canada has maintained a small number of troops in Korea. Three years ago a Canadian became the first non-US general to hold the post of deputy commander since the United Nations Command (UNC) was created to fight the Korean War in 1950. Washington is now pushing to “revitalize” the UNC, which is led by a US General who simultaneously commands the approximately 28,000 US troops currently stationed in Korea. According to the Financial Times, the UN force “serves to bolster and enhance the US’s position in north-east Asia at a time when China is rising.”

As Washington has turned its focus to countering Chinese power in Asia over the past decade, Ottawa has ramped up its belligerence. In June 2012 the Canadian Press reported, “Canada is seeking a deal with Singapore to establish a military staging post there as part of its effort to support the United States’ ‘pivot’ toward Asia to counter a rising China.”

In recent years Canadian vessels have repeatedly been involved in belligerent “freedom of navigation” exercises through international waters that Beijing claims in the South China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan and the East China Sea. To “counter China’s growing influence” in Asia, Washington has sought to stoke longstanding territorial and maritime boundary disputes between China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and other nations. As part of efforts to rally regional opposition to China, the US Navy engages in regular “freedom of navigation” operations, which see warships travel through or near disputed waters.

At its most extreme, the anti-Chinese campaign reflects a worldview that longs for a divided and imperially dominated country like before 1949. Yet, the militaristic, xenophobic, and pro-US forces in Canada have to contend with China’s rising economic power and elements of the capitalist class who see conflict with this huge market as self-defeating and an obstacle to profit-making. Corporate Canada and elements of the Global Affairs bureaucracy generally prefer greater ties with Beijing while militarist forces seek conflict.

People who believe in a peaceful, rules-based international order that does not reward imperial bullying, have many reasons to oppose militaristic and xenophobic foreign policy. While leftists should challenge capitalism, in this situation much of the corporate class has taken a more progressive position compared to the so-called ‘security’ establishment.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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