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Chomsky questions Canada’s support of U.S. foreign policy

Noted historian calls for softening of antagonism in Canada-China relations
Noam Chomsky, historian and U.S. foreign policy critic, was the keynote speaker at a Feb. 4 online event held by think tank Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies |Σ/Wikipedia

Famed scholar Noam Chomsky has weighed in on Canada’s fractious relationship with China, urging Canadian policy makers to stop supporting the United States in its growing antagonism of Beijing.

Chomsky, a highly cited linguist, philosopher, historian and critic of American foreign policy, was the keynote speaker of a Feb. 4 online event held by think tank Canadian Foreign Policy Institute (CFPI) and the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies.

During his hour-long appearance, Chomsky focused on criticizing U.S. foreign policy – specifically, its use of military power to maintain Washington’s position of strength in global affairs while abusing the rights of other peoples.

Chomsky pointed out that Canada has traditionally gone along with Washington’s position globally, and that, he believes, is a bad policy, especially when it comes to dealing with China.

“What I think Canada ought to do should be clear in these remarks,” Chomsky said, noting that China’s international economic policies such as the controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could play a role in rebuilding war-torn countries in Central Asia that – as he puts it – suffered greatly under U.S. policy directives.

That, he said, is something the West has traditionally – although incorrectly, Chomsky argued –characterized as a threat.

“Chinese aid and development may help to shift the Afghan economy from heroin production for Europe – as it has been under U.S. control – to using its rich mineral resources,” he said. “That ... would contrast with current U.S. policy by even withholding its own funds ... while the Afghans starve.”

Chomsky also argued that while countries like the Five Eyes (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and the United States) have been aggressively promoting the image of China as an aggressor “aiming to confront the United States” and to surpass Washington in dominating world affairs, the current U.S.-China frictions are “sharply asymmetrical” in favour of the United States.

One example, he said, is in the way the U.S. Navy has increased its patrol of the South China Sea, where China is in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

“It’s claimed that U.S. naval operations in the contested areas are principled efforts to uphold freedom of navigation, which is not under the slightest threat – and never has been,” Chomsky told the CFPI event attendees. “This is clearly a matter to be settled by negotiations and diplomacy, not by sending naval armadas through China’s exclusive economic zone.”

Chomsky’s controversial positions on China – which coincides with the CFPI position that it “opposes the racism embedded in foreign policy” – nevertheless appears to take on several debatable talking points often used by Beijing and the ruling Communist Party of China in defending its actions, critics say.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, is a vocal critic of China’s recent policies after working on the Canada-China tech co-operation initiative for many years.

For McCuaig-Johnston, Chomsky paints an overly positive image of China as a defiant country against the supposed tyranny of the U.S. government’s policies, noting that the famed scholar mentioned in passing that “China’s human rights infringements are doubtlessly severe” then failing to follow up.

“He says China’s human rights infringements are doubtless severe, and that’s all he has to say about that,” McCuaig-Johnston said. “He goes on to talk about human rights violations in other countries.  He completely ignores the current and ongoing genocide that China is directing in the Uyghur region of China.”

One attendee at the CFPI event – Green Party Saanich-Gulf Islands MP and former leader Elizabeth May – did broach the topic, noting there is an increasing challenge for thinkers on the left to reconcile both the United States’ aggressive foreign policy and the fact that China itself is an “imperialist power” that “colonizes and oppresses others.”

“We have to work with the People’s Republic of China,” May said. “But I challenge some of my friends on the left; how do we analyze imperialist powers that colonize and oppress other peoples [as] if it’s only the United States? It’s both. China is an imperialist nation that also colonizes and oppresses the people of Tibet and the Uyghurs.”

But May also noted China’s participation in global environmental summits such as the recent COP26 in Scotland, where Beijing’s representative maintained a steady policy presence that she described as being “overall helpful” to the green cause.

“We have to have co-operation,” she said. “We have to have dialogue.... We have to be aware that just beating a drum is definitely not helpful.”

However, McCuaig-Johnston, again cautioned against an overly rosy view of China, especially given the development coming out of Beijing in the last four years such as the suppression of democratic movements in Hong Kong, as well as its arrest of two Canadian citizens in clear retaliation against Canada when Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested and held in Vancouver for three years on a U.S. extradition request.

On the environmental front, McCuaig-Johnston said Beijing’s actions have not aligned with its commitments on the world stage.

“As [May] said, we have to be clear-eyed in calling out China’s human rights record,” McCuaig-Johnston said. “I agree completely. [But] she was positive about China’s participation in the Glasgow climate talks despite the fact that China will continue to grow its emissions until 2030. Then we’ll see what happens.”

Canada’s relationship with China has been in historic lows since the aforementioned Meng affair began in 2018. Although Meng was released after reaching a deferred prosecution agreement with U.S. investigators, diplomatic ties have remained icy as issues such as major human-rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong arise.

The most recent development came when Canada joined the United States and several other countries in imposing a diplomatic boycott of the ongoing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. But despite all the negativity on the political side, bilateral trade between Canada and China rose in 2020 for both imports and exports – even before the Meng affair was resolved in fall 2021.

China also remains Canada’s second-largest trade partner. •