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Clock ticks on B.C.-China ‘Belt and Road’ MOU; Australia punts their own

As Australia terminates a state MOU on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, B.C. is soon forced to face its own decision
China’s consul general in Vancouver Tong Xiaoling giving Premier John Horgan a red scarf during Chinese New Year celebration in Richmond in 2019. In 2018, Horgan went on a trade mission to Guangdong province, which has a Belt and Road Initiative agreement with B.C. | Photo: BC Government Flikr

After Australia’s federal government cancelled a state memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative with the Chinese government, the B.C. government has just days to mull over a likewise agreement of its own.

The provincial government’s memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Guangdong Province to support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a pan-Pacific partnership was signed in May 2016 and could expire Sunday, leading to an assessment on whether or not it should be resigned.

Pro-democracy civic groups in Vancouver are united with the Conservative Party of Canada in opposing the MOU and are calling for federal intervention, or for the provincial government to terminate the arrangement that promotes economic, social and cultural ties between the so-called sister provinces.

“It's encouraging to see Australia — a member of the Five Eyes — defend their national interest by firmly standing up against Beijing's aggressive and silent invasion into their sovereignty, states and territories by cancelling the BRI MOU. The B.C. government should follow their lead to cancel ours,” Fenella Sung, founding member of Canadian Friends of Hong Kong (CFHK), told Glacier Media.

Echoing Sung is Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong.

“I don’t think British Columbia should be part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Chong, who broadly asserts, as like Sung, the MOU is contrary to Canadian “interests and values” and poses a national security concern.

The agreement is not legally binding and calls for expanding two-way trade in natural resources, value-added products, services, education and tourism. Specifics include LNG production, marine scientific research cooperation, low-carbon technology development and further partnerships around 5G networks. As well, the MOU calls for “fostering deeper people-to-people connections.”

The state of Victoria, Australia signed a similar MOU in 2018. But on April 22, the deal was terminated under its federal government's Foreign Arrangements Scheme, which became law in December, 2020 and gave the federal government veto power on deals between states and foreign entities that are inconsistent with Australia's foreign policy, Australia media reported.

But Chong raises a thorny matter that could prevent Ottawa from acting in the same way, should it choose to: the constitution.

“The federal government has the responsibility for negotiating international treaties. But provinces have a great deal jurisdiction over trade itself, which is why we've always had challenges in negotiating trade agreements and why we've also had challenges in trying to tear down interprovincial trade barriers,” said Chong.

And so, “the federal government has to work more closely with provinces to make sure that they're aware of security and intelligence risks presented by China's increasingly malevolent behaviour, and how the Belt and Road Initiative fits in their geopolitical intentions.”

Chong did acknowledge Ottawa holds power over broad trade agreements and the flow of people and goods across international borders.

Glacier Media asked Chong if these state/provincial agreements serve a particular purpose for China — that of bypassing federal scrutiny.

Chong agreed, stating, “and that's where the federal government needs to do a much better job of sitting down with other orders of government, ie. the provinces, to educate them on what the security and intelligence risks are.”

Chong said an example of this is closer federal cooperation at provincially regulated universities.

B.C.’s MOU includes no specific contracts, but it has arguably manifested in some public policies such as licensing more LNG fracking (for export to China), maintaining exports through the pandemic, permitting Chinese government-sponsored schools and increased international education opportunities, including contracts with Chinese police academies via the Justice Institute of B.C. (now under “review”). A more blunt indication of BRI policy being entrenched in B.C. includes a massive Chinese state-sponsored warehouse development in Surrey labelled as a BRI project.

Meanwhile “people-to-people” ties had been strengthening with MLAs and local social, cultural and business leaders frequently meeting with China’s consul general, up until the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. China’s foreign propaganda arm the United Front Work Department has also been active in B.C.

Chong says it isn’t just Australia’s new foreign policy law that Canada should emulate with respect to China; Australia has also passed a foreign influence transparency scheme act, and the National Security Legislation Amendment, to counter influence activities of foreign adversaries, such the Chinese Communist Party, that aim to shape domestic policy that favour China — such as its BRI objectives. 

“And those pieces of legislation helped them to counter some of China's malevolent activities in Australia. So one thing that we are calling on the government to do is to establish a foreign agent registry,” said Chong. Last month, Richmond MP Kenny Chiu introduced a private members bill proposing such action. Last year Chiu told Glacier Media he opposes the BRI MOU.

“The second thing we should be doing is we should be expelling any agents formal or informal of the of the People's Republic of China, Canada, that are intimidating Canadians, including Chinese Canadians,” said Chong.

The 2020 annual report for the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians states Russia and China, in particular, “continue to target government networks, public institutions and private companies for cyber espionage. These actors continue to build their capability to target critical
infrastructure, conduct online influence campaigns and monitor dissidents abroad.”

Sung and a “Concern Group of Chinese Canadians on CCP Human Rights Violations” issued a letter to Premier John Horgan last month to take action against such activity, after one of the premier’s advisors, Bill Yee, denied evidence of genocide occurring against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang autonomous region.

Sung notes some local civic groups, such as the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver (CBA) and National Congress of Chinese Canadians (NCCC), lobby and advertise for public policy positions that align with Beijing. 

The B.C. government has declined to comment specifically on these matters and minister of state for trade George Chow (past CBA president) declined an interview. 

Former BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark, her international trade minister Teresa Wat, and her advanced education minister Andrew Wilkinson signed the MOU in May 2016.

Last fall, during the election campaign, the BC Liberal party leader Wilkinson said he would need to “take cues” from the federal government. 

But Wat was more specific in 2019 when she spoke at a trade event in Metro Vancouver, telling her audience, in Mandarin, she has “many plans with regards to further deepening ties with China.” Wat described B.C. and Guangdong as a “one belt, one road link” that ties North America and Southeast Asia, respectively, to China. At one point she seemed to be speaking on behalf of both sides, referring to Guangdong’s (CCP) General Secretary as “our general secretary.”

Most Western jurisdictions have been apprehensive about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s global aspirations for China, as promoted through the BRI’s foreign infrastructure investments and overseas financial, social and cultural programs, which initially targeted developing Asian countries. 

Moreover, last October, a House of Commons subcommittee on human rights told how China is committing acts of genocide against Uyghur Muslims in northwest China, in part to expand BRI-linked resource projects through Central Asia.

That region, in northwest China, according to experts, is a resource-rich area with important oil deposits. “It also borders several Central Asian countries that the Government of China considers strategically important for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its pursuit of expansionism.”

Then, and now, pro-democracy groups have criticized Horgan and the BC NDP for being silent on the genocide allegations while maintaining the BRI agreement.

“These sorts of issues are actually heavily provincial and municipal. I think it isn't just like a thing that a provincial politician can just defer and say, ‘Oh, I'll just let the federal government do that kind of thing,’” said Jane Li, a member of local pro-democracy group Vancouver Hong Kong Political Activists, last October.

Global Affairs did not respond to questions about the matters raised by Chong, but has acknowledged in the past it is aware of the BRI MOU. 

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