OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says if his party wins Canada’s tight election race he will push to join the U.S., U.K. and Australia in their defense and technology-sharing club.
President Joe Biden announced the new working group this week as part of a thinly veiled disguised move to counter China. The partnership will include the sharing of advanced technologies, including the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.
O’Toole’s commitment: O’Toole, whose Conservatives are neck and neck with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ahead of Monday’s election, was asked Thursday whether he would pick up the phone to ask the other countries to let Canada into the so-called AUKUS club.
“Yes,” O’Toole said at a campaign stop in Saint John, New Brunswick, before adding that Canada needs to be at any table where there are discussions of global trade, standing up for workers, security, cybersecurity, public safety and human rights.
The Conservative leader then shifted to criticizing his Liberal opponent: “He’s not getting called by other countries because Canada is becoming irrelevant under Mr. Trudeau. We’re becoming more divided at home, less prosperous and the world is a serious place with challenges.”
Trudeau’s take: Earlier Thursday, Trudeau told reporters the AUKUS deal is about nuclear submarines. He noted that Canada, unlike Australia, is “not currently or any time soon in the market” for nuclear subs.
“We will continue to work alongside our partners to ensure that we’re keeping ourselves safe and we’re standing up against challenges, including those posed by China,” Trudeau said in Montreal.
He stressed that Canada continues to be a strong member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes the AUKUS countries as well as New Zealand.
Before the deal was announced: A Canadian government spokesperson told POLITICO that on Wednesday Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan spoke with his British and Australian counterparts about AUKUS, while Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau discussed it with his Australian counterpart.
Daniel Minden, a Sajjan spokesperson, said Thursday in an email that they discussed the U.S. and U.K. sharing nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia. He also said Global Affairs Canada officials discussed the agreement with officials from the U.S. State Department.
A senior Canadian government official told POLITICO that AUKUS is about the U.S. and the U.K. sharing technical knowledge with respect to nuclear powered submarines with Australia. He also said Global Affairs Canada officials discussed the agreement with officials from the U.S. State Department.
The insider dismissed the idea that the agreement is a “broader” deal.
“This is about two partners who do have the technical know-how with respect to a nuclear-powered submarine bringing Australia into the fold on this,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’ve been kept up to speed on that, but it’s just a very particular bilateral procurement arrangement that they’re setting up.”
China and Canada’s election: Foreign policy has so far taken up little political oxygen during Canada’s election campaign. But whenever it has surfaced, Ottawa’s testy relations with Beijing have been a prominent subject.
Trudeau has taken heat for failing to secure the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, known colloquially as the “two Michaels.”
The men have been behind bars in China for more than 1,000 days on espionage charges, on which Spavor has already been convicted. Their detentions — called “arbitrary” by Trudeau — are widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
During the election campaign, O’Toole has accused Trudeau of failing to take seriously the ordeals of the “diplomatic hostages.” O’Toole has stressed he would “reset” Canada’s relationship with China.
The debate stage: “Canada’s voice has been absent,” O’Toole said in a leaders debate last week as he criticized Trudeau for not doing enough to pressure Beijing with actions like banning Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks. “We should be leaders for our values, sir, and you’ve let the Michaels down, and we have to get serious with China.”
Trudeau responded by arguing the need for a more nuanced strategy to deal with China, which is Canada’s biggest and most-delicate foreign policy issue.
“If you want to get the Michaels home, you do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific,” Trudeau said. “That is what Mr. [former Conservative prime minister Stephen] Harper tried for a number of years and didn’t get anywhere. You need to engage in sophisticated ways with our allies, every step of the way.”
What [could be] next: If elected, O’Toole has vowed to immediately ban Huawei gear from the country’s 5G infrastructure, withdraw Canada from the the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and seek to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partnership, which is made up of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.
The Conservatives have also promised to pursue a Canada-Australia-New Zealand-U.K. partnership, which he’s dubbed “CANZUK,” to deepen the Commonwealth allies’ cooperation in areas like trade, defense and intelligence.