Reacting to Saudi Arabia and China: Balancing Canadian Values and Interests

The Khashoggi and Meng cases highlight the difficulties that countries have in balancing their values vs their interests. For Canada, it is important to encourage as many countries as possible to support it’s values based positions.

by | Feb 10, 2019

IJ Spotlight

In partnership with SAGE Publications, one article of key significance from every new issue of International Journal is chosen to be featured in the IJ Spotlight Series. The unabridged version of this article was originally published in Vol. 73 No. 1.

Saudi Arabia’s and China’s recent rogue actions have forced Canada and other Western countries to confront the classic conundrum of how a state balances its values, e.g., respect for human rights, against its interests that include protecting its citizens at home and abroad, trade and political/military alliances. Canada, a middle power with limited hard power influence, must forge alliances with like-minded states if it hopes to be able to both promote its values beyond its own borders and protect its interests.

On its face, the brutal assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi officials was so beyond the bounds of international law and practice that it should have been relatively easy for the international community to come together to condemn the Saudi government, demand a full accounting of those responsible, and seek appropriate compensation for the victim’s family.

Not only did the murder take place without charge, trial, or conviction, but it was carried out on another state’s territory and within Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic premises. After weeks of denial and obfuscation, the Saudi Government finally admitted that its officials had carried out the murder but blamed it on rogue elements within its security services. To date, the Khashoggi’s body has not been located and only relatively low-level officials have been charged.

Similarly, assuming that the recent arrests by China of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were carried out solely in retaliation for the arrest of the Chinese Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, this too is a clear violation of the rule of law and international practice. It should be in the clear interests of Canada’s international partners to co-operate in demanding the Canadians’ release. After all, their citizens have – witness the recent arrest of the an Australian – and could again suffer a similar fate.

These events highlight a more general threat – that of regimes taking their repression global. There is substantial evidence that both Russia and China have in the past abducted and/or murdered domestic opponents even when they seek sanctuary abroad. Indeed, several Saudi dissidents also have recently been abducted abroad and sent to secret prisons, even before the Khashoggi killing.

Unfortunately, given the interests of Western states in maintaining positive relations with both Saudi Arabia and China, the response to date to these aggressions have been relatively weak.

In one of the clearest statements of a preference for economic interests over values, U.S. President Trump rejected sanctions and a condemnation of either Saudi Arabia or its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salam (MBS). This was despite the fact that the CIA had concluded that MbS was aware of and had likely ordered the assassination.

Rather, Trump made it clear that he was not prepared to jeopardize the promised billions of dollars of Saudi investment in the U.S. or the sales of billions of dollars of U.S. goods to that country by taking any meaningful action against Saudi Arabia. Trump did not mention but no doubt also had in mind, the close relationship between MbS and his son in law, Jared Kushner, or the common interest the US and Saudi Arabia have in confronting Iran.

A number of countries, including Canada, the UK, Germany, France, and the EU, condemned Khashoggi’s murder. Canada, the US and others announced targeted sanctions against certain Saudi nationals who had been previously identified as having carried out the murder. Germany cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia. No country, however, imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia per se or targeted MbS.

For its part, Canada has been debating whether to cancel a contract with Saudi Arabia for the sale of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) worth approximately $15 billion.

In the Meng case, Canada has stuck to its guns on the extradition, as it must, and has had some success in recruiting other Western powers, including the US, the UK and the EU, to protest the detention of the two Canadian citizens. Given China’s economic power and the interest of most Western countries in increasing bilateral trade and investment with that country, it is unclear whether we or our allies will take any further steps to pressure China.

To date, Canadians have expressed themselves on these issues from all ends of the values vs interests spectrum. Some commentators have argued that breaking the LAV contract with the Saudi Government will have no impact on Saudi Arabia’s domestic or foreign activities but will affect some 3000 thousand manufacturing jobs in South Western Ontario. They argue against prohibiting the exports and suggest that the Saudis will simply buy similar vehicles from countries that traditionally export far more arms to Saudi than does Canada. Interestingly, that suggestion comes not from a union leader in London, Ontario, but rather from an academic, at the University of Waterloo.

Others, including union workers at a port in New Brunswick, whose jobs would be negatively affected if the contract was terminated, have argued that the contract should be cancelled and that the LAVs should not be exported.

In response to the Meng affair, one Canadian international lawyer went so far as to suggest that once it received the US extradition request, Canada should have warned Ms. Meng not to enter Canada thereby avoiding the difficult situation in which the Government now finds itself. Others take the view, with which I wholeheartedly support, that this precisely a case where we have to ignore our hard interests with China, e.g., a free trade agreement, and play hard ball.

In sum, there are times when Canada and other countries have to ignore their interests in order to defend more important values and principles. If they want to have an effect on curbing the actions of rogue states, they should do so in concert with other states that share those values. Only then, will Canada and its allies have a chance of multiplying the pressure and minimizing the harm directed at them in response.


Jon Allen is a Distinguished Fellow of CIC and a former Canadian Ambassador to Israel and Spain.