WASHINGTON — Nothing to see here, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted Thursday after the United States and two other major Canadian allies unveiled a new intelligence-sharing agreement in the Indo-Pacific region — one that's prompting questions about the future of the so-called Five Eyes alliance.
The Five Eyes — Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. — is the colloquial name of a long-standing multilateral arrangement for keeping security tabs on a part of the world where China's growing influence is being watched with apprehension around the globe.
That's why the unexpected new bargain between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, christened AUKUS, is raising eyebrows in foreign-policy circles internationally, as well as on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
"We continue to be strong members of the Five Eyes, and continue to share information and security approaches with our partners," Trudeau said during an election campaign stop in Montreal.
He characterized the new agreement as being mainly about a decision by Australia, increasingly nervous about Chinese ambition in its backyard, to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, scuttling long-standing negotiations to procure a submarine fleet from France.
"This is a deal for nuclear submarines, which Canada is not currently or any time soon in the market for; Australia is," Trudeau said.
"That is what we will continue to work alongside our partners to ensure — that we're keeping ourselves safe, that we're standing up against challenges, including those posed by China."
Those challenges have become substantial in recent years, compromising Canada's ability to frame its relationship with China as one rooted largely in mutually beneficial trade and economic growth, with a periodic shove on matters of human rights and national security.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper struggled to walk that line in 2012 when he grudgingly approved a Chinese state-owned company's takeover of Calgary-based oilsands giant Nexen Inc., while simultaneously unveiling stringent new foreign-ownership rules.
The Liberal government abandoned its pursuit of a trade deal with China, and has long hedged its bets on Huawei Inc., the Chinese tech monolith whose 5G network ambitions are seen by many around the world as a major national security threat. Of the Five Eyes partners, only Canada has stopped short of a ban.
The 2018 arrest in Vancouver of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, wanted on a U.S. extradition warrant, thickened the plot considerably — especially when China detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in what was widely seen as an act of retribution.
"There's a line in the Rush song 'Free Will' that says, 'If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice,'" said Eric Miller, a Canada-U.S. expert and president of the D.C.-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group.
"That's been the problem: that Canada hasn't known what it wants out of the China relationship."
Canada's diplomatic response Thursday stood in stark contrast to the reaction in France, which — piqued by the U.S. role in abetting Australia's decision to abandon its original submarine talks — cancelled a planned gala event in D.C. meant to celebrate the close ties between the two countries.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki wasn't asked specifically about the Five Eyes, but did acknowledge the frustration in France, saying the U.S. has diplomatic relationships and mechanisms in place with allies and regions around the world.
"This is not the only global engagement or global co-operative partnership the United States has in the world," Psaki said.
"There are a range of partnerships that include the French, and some partnerships that don't, and they have partnerships with other countries that don't include us. That is part of how global diplomacy works."
China called the deal a "closed and exclusive clique" and suggesting the pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines was a direct affront to a number of nuclear non-proliferation treaties to which all three countries are signatories.
"They are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical games and adopting double standards. This is extremely irresponsible," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news conference.
"Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception, respect the will of the people of regional countries and do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development."
Brett Bruen, a former diplomat and White House adviser who now works as a consultant in Washington, said it's likely Canada — invited or otherwise — would have wanted nothing to do with the talks, given the risk of exacerbating tensions with China and endangering Kovrig and Spavor further.
But the absence is conspicuous nonetheless, he said.
"I imagine that Canada is reluctant to poke the panda bear at a time when they already have a whole lot of issues they're contending with," Bruen said.
"But if I were Canadian, it would seem that not being in that elite club comes with significant costs. So it's not an obvious choice to say, 'Well, we'll just sit this one out.' Because if you're not in that inner circle of the closest co-ordination, there are costs."
With Monday's federal election drawing near, Trudeau's rivals on the campaign trail promptly seized on the AUKUS deal as evidence that the Liberal government has abdicated Canada's international responsibilities.
"Mr. Trudeau is not taken seriously by our friends and allies around the world," said Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, pitching his promise to seek closer economic and trade ties with Australia and New Zealand if elected prime minister.
"This is another major gathering of our closest allies that Mr. Trudeau is not even given a phone call."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accused Trudeau of missing an opportunity to press China to release Kovrig and Spavor.
"Canada should have been part of the pact," Singh said. "This pact seems like a potential avenue to apply more pressure, but Canada was absent."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press