Former prime minister Stephen Harper says the world order has returned to a kind of Cold War between two superpowers, this time between the United States and China.
And while middle-power countries like Canada are part of the rivalry, Harper told a defence conference Thursday they lack the economic and security clout to do much on their own to shape the outcome.
“Yes, middle powers like Canada can play a role and should play a role,” he said. “But I don’t think we should think that, especially for a country like ours, we could set courses completely independent of the Big Two.”
The former Conservative prime minister gave his view of the new world order during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session at a virtual gathering hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
Following the Second World War, the U.S. and its allies engaged in a prolonged Cold War with the Soviet Union and its communist allies and satellite states.
While Russia remains “strategically important,” Harper said its comparatively small economy today puts it out of the same league as China and the U.S. Russia has devolved instead, he said, into being “the world’s biggest disrupter,” along with rogue states like Iran and North Korea.
“It’s a hacker, it’s a disrupter, it’s a mercenary,” he said.
While the U.S. remains the world’s “pre-eminent power,” Harper said: “I think we’re past the day where it is the dominant or overwhelming power.”
“China is now a competitive rival of the United States across a range of spheres: economic, security, frankly competition of (government) systems as well.”
Harper said the blocs around each superpower are not as well defined as they were when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were the globe’s major rivals.
And he said there’s another twist: “The rivalry, while intense and growing, also involves a degree of mutual dependency that you didn’t have between the Soviet Union and the United States.”
A “huge change” since he left office in 2015 is the degree to which the U.S. has pulled back from its traditional leadership role — some of which Harper attributed to former U.S. president Donald Trump’s isolationist policies but which he thinks is generally “a trend in American politics.”
Europe, meanwhile, is “just not a player on international peace and security issues,” he said.
At the same time, Harper said China has become more blatantly aggressive and “hegemonic” — and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future, no matter who is its leader.
That could become an even bigger challenge if the standard of living in China were to reach the equivalent of that in advanced western nations, Harper said.
“This would mean that China, in sheer size, would be three times the (economic) power that the United States was at its height, with a system of not just authoritarianism, but a desire to spread that kind of a system around the world.
“This is just not something to be taken lightly.”
Harper said other countries in the region, like India, are trying to straddle the fence in the midst of the superpower rivalry, strengthening economic relations with China while protecting themselves from its hegemonic ambitions by simultaneously trying to strengthen their security relationships with the United States.
For Canada, Harper said one challenge is to prevent state-owned Chinese companies from controlling our resources sector, as his government took steps to prevent.
And he said there is no way Canada should allow Chinese technology giants like Huawei or ZTE to be involved in core data and tech services, including the development of 5G wireless networks.
The current Liberal government has delayed a decision on Huawei’s involvement in 5G here, although Canada’s allies in the so-called Five-Eyes intelligence alliance have banned the company from participating.
Harper said he believes “technological bifurcation” between China and the West is inevitable because the two societies have starkly different approaches to technology.
In western countries, people are concerned about “privacy, surveillance, the use of personal data” by big tech companies, he said. Meanwhile, “the entire Chinese technology system is designed for that purpose.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.
The Canadian Press