Why the Canadian government let Chinese forces attend a ‘military science’ meeting in Canada

The episode highlights the thorny issue of cooperation between the militaries of nations increasingly seen as geopolitical adversaries

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Three days after Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were released from a prison ordeal in China, the Chinese military made a surprising request to Canada’s top defense university.

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He asked if some of his staff could attend an international conference on “military science” at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ont.

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The theme of the October 2021 Academic Meeting was “Resilience and Cohesion in the Face of New Forms of Disruption”, and one of the sessions focused on “China and Russia’s attacks on the information space against democracy “.

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The request pushed the ranks of the Ministry of National Defense (DND) all the way up to Deputy Minister, but in the end the organizers had good news for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Their officers could attend, even if that meant reaching a mostly virtual audience through Zoom.

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“We weren’t very happy with the demand, but it’s an open conference,” says Pierre Jolicoeur, a professor at RMC who chaired the symposium. “The answer was quickly taken – Yes.… We want to promote contact between different cultures and different knowledge and people with different perspectives.”

The meeting involved a discussion of open-source information available to everyone, not sensitive issues, echoed Andrew McKelvey, a DND spokesman.

Despite getting the green light, there is no record of PLA members actually tuning into the conference. But the episode highlights the thorny issue of cooperation between militaries of nations increasingly seen as geopolitical adversaries.

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The problem came to a head in late 2020 with news that Chinese soldiers had participated in winter military exercises in Canada for years under an agreement signed by the then Conservative government in 2013.

Top military leaders decided to cancel the arrangement – ​​apparently at the request of the United States – only for Global Affairs Canada to oppose it. The ministry feared it would further deteriorate relations with China as Canada struggled to secure the release of the two Michaels.

Last year’s meeting was a less dramatic venue for potential Sino-Western defense interaction.

It was RMC’s turn to host the annual conference of the International Society of Military Science, a group of national defense universities from 10 mostly small and medium-sized democracies, including Canada, the Netherlands and the Portugal. Delegates from other nations are also present.

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The meeting took place from October 11 to 14. two Michaels were released on September 24 after being held for two years in what critics called hostage diplomacy by China in response to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. On Sept. 27, the PLA’s military science academy asked organizers if their members could attend the conference, according to a “decision memo” prepared for Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of the defense staff. , then DND Deputy Minister Jody Thomas, obtained by the National Post through freedom of information legislation.

In fact, the Chinese armed forces had already attended the event in Warsaw in 2018 and Vienna in 2019, with officers up to the level of brigadier general, the note said.

The event is an open academic conference at the unclassified level with “broad international representation,” the document says. Finland, for example, had organized a roundtable on military technology, but from a “conceptual” point of view and based on open source material, the briefing note states.

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Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor return to Canada, after nearly three years in detention in China, September 25, 2021.
Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor return to Canada, after nearly three years in detention in China, September 25, 2021. Photo by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau/Twitter

David Bercuson, a prominent military historian from the University of Calgary, said there was no reason to exclude the Chinese from the meeting, agreeing that nothing would have been discussed that the PLA could not learn by other open source means.

It must be remembered that the current “cold war” with Beijing has nothing to do with the original one with the Soviet Union, given the billions in trade, tourism, immigration and other contacts between the two countries.

Allowing the PLA to observe winter military exercises at CFB Petawawa, on the other hand, was a mistake – “not in our national security interests”, he said.

But is there generally a role for the armed forces of two adversaries to interact? In fact, there have long been high-level meetings between US, Chinese and Russian military leaders, exchanges that are seen as a way to reduce mistrust and avoid miscalculations that could lead to conflicts between nuclear powers.

“The more contacts we can maintain for the simple purpose of communicating is a good thing,” Bercuson said.

Jolicoeur, who took care of the APL’s request to attend his conference, accepted.

“I think it’s good for countries to talk to each other,” he said. “If there are contacts between soldiers from different countries, even if they are adversaries, it’s good to have communication channels.”

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