Late last week I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. We touched on everything from the Mideast to Mali, trade and Canada’s role at the UN.
Here’s the full transcript of the conversation.
Q – First off – China. Is it a friend or a foe?
Baird: We work well with the Chinese government, we have a lot of people -to-people ties between Canadians and the Chinese and obviously they’re a valued partner for Canada on so many areas.
Q – But Canadians are nervous about China, about its expansion. You see that in polls regularly. Is there a reason for them to feel that way?
B – There’s no doubt the rise of the Chinese economy and the rise of its political power are a big change over the past quarter century. This is a huge growing economy, we have great trade ties with them that creates a lot of jobs here in Canada. At the same time one of my jobs is to promote Canadian values and sometimes we’re at odds with thinking in Beijing.
3 – So Canadians shouldn’t be nervous about that then?
Q – Listen Canadians are right to be skeptical of any big power. But my job is to promote Canadian interests. A lot of that involves trade and commerce but it’s also to promote Canadian values – and those are obviously freedom and human rights. We don’t shy away from them.
Q- Speaking of human rights. You’ve raised a number of concerns on that with regards to China in the past, even just a couple of months ago talking about self-immolations in Tibet, for example. Do you think China’s human rights record is improving?
B – Look, the situation in Tibet does cause us concern when you have literally dozens of people self-immolating. That can’t cause anyone who loves freedom not to be concerned. And we have direct respectful but direct conversations with our Chinese interlocutors and I think that’s what Canadians would expect us to do.
Q – But are they listening?
B – I think in some areas we’ve seen improvements, in others we haven’t. And that obviously causes us concern. I think we’re better off to engage with China, engage with leaders in Beijing and around the country than to be isolationist. We are witnessing a huge change, a changing of the guard where a new generation of leadership is taking power. They were elected to party congress in November, they’ ll take office in March or April, so lets continue to engage and work with this new leadership. Both the prime minister and I have both had occasion together and separately to sit down with the incoming premier (Xi Jinping). Some believe he has the potential to be a reformer and we”ll certainly do our best but I think Canadians expect us to obviously work hard on our relationship with China – trade, commerce, jobs, growth, opportunity. At the same time Canadian values are something that are pretty dear and they expect us to have honest but respectful conversations with the Chinese leadership on a range of issues.
Q – So hopeful for the new regime then?
B -Listen, lets give them an opportunity. They haven’t taken power yet. But lets give the new leadership the support on these types of issues – the best support we can give.
Q – Shifting gears a little to a very different region. I’d like to talk about Africa. There’s been again concerns about Islamism, whether it’s of course extremism in Mali, which you’ve spoken about repeatedly over the past year. You have problems in the Sahel region, both food shortages but again extremism within that region. How concerned are you about that phenomenon?
B – I had hoped to visit Mali this past week. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to given the prime minister had been arrested. It was unfortunately not an opportune time. I was already in Morocco – not too far. We’re deeply concerned obviously about the humanitarian situation, the food hunger and humanitarian challenge. We’re also tremendously concerned in a big part of the northern part of the country. Groups associated with Al-Qaida increasingly taking power. We obviously want to work with ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) the regional Africa organization with Mali’s neighbours on this issue. The UN has authorized an effort to engage with Mali and with its neighbours and certainly Canada will be reflecting on what role we can play. We’re not looking to send any Canadian troops to Mali, but if there’s ways we can support development and the fight against terrorism I think that’s a conversation we’re prepared to have here in Canada.
Q -Well, certainly we’ve focused on – especially in the Sahel region – sending humanitarian aid, along with your colleague (International Co-operation Minister Julian) Fantino, (former minister) Bev Oda. There were the efforts to raise money here for that region. You say we’re not going to send any military assistance. This is something that the US is looking at, other allies of ours. Why not take that extra step?
B – There’s a difference between sending Canadian troops into Mali and providing support in the fight against terrorism, radical extremists linked to Al Qaida. The UN just yesterday made a request and obviously the Canadians would expect us to thoughtfully consider that. If we can help ECOWAS, if we can help Mali’s neighbours and countries in that region tackle this growing threat we’re certainly prepared to give serious consideration to that. I planned to go this past week to get a sense what’s going on on the ground. But we’ve got a little bit of work to do now the UN request has been made. We’ve got to remember the fight against international terrorism is the great struggle of our generation and Canada has always been an active player in that regard. What we don’t want to see happen in Mali is it become another Afghanistan or another Somalia, where it can be very destabilizing.
Q – For clarification – are you saying that in terms of any military assistance it is not on the table at all right now but Canada hasn’t shut the door on it?
B – What I’ve said is we’re not looking, we’re not considering sending Canadian troops to Mali. Are we prepared to consider the UN’s request for support ECOWAS and its neighbours? Absolutely. But I think what Canadians would expect us to do – we got this request yesterday – Canadians would expect us to thoughtfully reflect on that request and to consult with our development experts and to consult with the Canadian Forces, to consult with my cabinet colleagues and others. And we’ll certainly do that.
Q – There is some good news coming out of Africa. A number of other regions have booming economies. Canada has of course focused its trade efforts on the Asia-Pacific region notably over the past year. Will Canada look perhaps to take a bit more advantage of that growing region?
B – I wouldn’t say booming economies. Because when you have five or 10 per cent growth and the baseline is so small obviously it’s not substantial but there’s no doubt there are many opportunities for economic development in Africa and many opportunities for Canadian businesses to benefit. So obviously my colleague the minister of trade (Ed Fast) is actively engaged with those files. Obviously the growth you’re seeing in the Asia-Pacific region is quite substantial as well.
Q – Again shifting gears a little to Syria. It’s been almost two years now the conflict is going on. You’ve said repeatedly you’re looking to post-Assad – the post-Assad regime. What might that regime look like to you?
B – The biggest concern that we have at the moment is for the Syrian people who have been slaughtered by Assad. We’re providing a substantial amount of humanitarian assistance, we’ve doubled that in recent weeks to provide support for men, women and children living in refugee camps in the desert, medical support, support for the world food program, support for our allies Jordan and others. We’ll continue to do that. Obviously we’re also very concerned about the potential use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. We’re concerned about those stockpiles falling into the wrong hands as the regime collapses. Assad will go, it’s just a matter of time. And what we don’t want to see happen is a continued civil war between various religious factions. So Canada has pushed very hard for this new opposition council that they’ve got to get out there and represent all religious minorities in the country. That is essential so we don’t see a blood bath after Assad falls. We also want to see the role of women be a central part. We want to see this council not embrace or work with any radical, Al Qaida-linked groups or other terrorists.
Q – Canada decided not to put its full backing behind the new coalition in Syria, of rebel groups. How concerned are you about extremist elements within those groups?
B – We’re prepared to work with them, we’re prepared to engage with them. When the prime minister, when our government sent me there to meet with the opposition I was impressed – to deliver those two messages. Religious minorities have got to be part of the council, they’ve got to have a plan to ensure there’s a place for them in post Assad Syria. There are a not insignificant number of radical extremists who have got involved in the fight to throw out Assad and obviously that’s a huge concern for Canada. We don’t want to see any Al Qaida backed terrorist groups get involved with this council or a new Syria. And those are two messages that I delivered. That won’t stop us engaging or working with the council and democracy and development and other measures.
Q – What then do you do to address that concern?
B – That’s not up for me to address, that’s up to them.
Q –Sticking with the Middle East, in terms of Iran. I interviewed you last year, you said it was very important to focus on diplomacy as much as possible when it came to their nuclear program and that would be the focus of the past year. We’ve seen Canada take a number of steps, including expelling the ambassador, or rather the staff here. Is the focus still on diplomacy and are there any ‘red lines?’
B – In Canada, the Iranian regime, the Iranian leadership, not the Iranian people, represents the biggest threat to peace and security in the world today. And we’re tremendously concerned by three things – one, their nuclear program – self evident. Two, their abysmal and deteriorating human rights situation, and three, their interference in other countries in the region, whether that’s supporting other terrorist groups like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in South Lebanon, whether it’s their support of Assad, their interference in Bahrain and elsewhere. Regrettably, not much has changed in the last year. Sanctions are beginning to really bite. They haven’t changed the direction of the Iranian leadership. The first thing they have to have a significant effect and there’s no doubt that a year later they’re having a major effect on the Iranian economy. Hopefully that’ll allow the regime to pause and reflect on that. The P5+1 process has worked diligently. But if the Iranian regime believes they’re going to get the suspension of sanctions just for showing up at a meeting I think they’re sadly mistaken.
Q- And yet you’ve expressed frustration that yes, economically we’re seeing sanctions work , we’re hearing they might be in a recession and so on…
B – Their currency dropped 30% in one week, earlier this year so there’s no doubt they’re in a recession.
Q –But you’ve expressed frustration because even though they may have come to the table a couple of times over the past year, they still seem to be going ahead with their nuclear program.
B – There’s no doubt they have not changed course and now that the American elections are over, we welcome the strong and unequivocal commitment that President Obama has made of these issues.
Q – So more diplomacy….
B – I think that’s all we have at this stage. We have the sanctions regime, we have the diplomacy. I think the Iranian regime would be wise to look at what the international community has said, look at what the leader of the free world Obama has said and to give serious reflection to that.
Q – Now, Canada has also made headlines for being an agitator in a sense at the UN, especially when it comes to Israel. You have given a number of big speeches over the past year saying of course that we are very good friends with Israel…
B – We’re good friends with liberal democracies, people who embrace democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law. And obviously those values are shared between our two countries.
Q – Are we following up any of those words with follow up action at the UN?
B – At the UN we’re often in the minority, and we don’t apologize for that. Canadians expect us to speak up for what’s right, to speak out against what’s wrong and we do that. And Canada has a position now. We no longer want to just go along with the group. And I think that’s what Canadians expect us to do.
Q– But we do indeed find ourselves regularly in the minority on major issues.
B – When you go there, every country has one vote. There’s no doubt when resolutions – that Canada is regularly on one side. Countries like Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Syria are regularly on the other side. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Q –But what does it mean for our influence at the UN, if we’re always part of – in many ways – this minority group on some major issues?
B – If you want to have influence, and that means voting for things you disagree with, or things we are explicitly against, I don’t know what kind of influence that would be. Listen our goal is not to be the most popular kid in school. Our goal is to stand up and defend Canadian values and defend Canadian interests. And the first interest that we have is freedom, is democracy, human rights. And we’re not afraid to stand up and do that.
Q – Looking somewhat domestically. Canada will be taking over as chair of the Arctic Council of course. What is our goal for 2013 for the Arctic Council? Is looking at keeping some non-Arctic nations who have said they want to come in, out?
B – I’m going to respect the role of my colleague Leona Aglukkaq. I think the prime minister strongly believes that this type of initiative should be led by a Northerner or people who live there who have an intimate understanding of the issues and the reality. I think Leona will do a great job (chairing the Arctic Council). Obviously we want to see economic development for people who live in that region. We want to see a safe environment, we want to see, there’s obviously an important role for leadership by the countries who are there. The US, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and other countries and that’s what this is all about.
Q – This past year, the focus has been on trade, the so-called Pacific pivot, on boosting trade with China, with…
B – I don’t agree with pivot. The word pivot implies you’re taking your attention off one place and putting it on another. There’s no doubt we’ve got a huge focus on the Asia-Pacific region. This is a huge, growing part of the world, population, democracy. A huge growing part of the world in global trade and commerce and this is where a big part of the future of Canada will lie and we’ve put an unprecedented focus. And that’s not just about China, it’s abut India, about the ASEAN region, important countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, and traditional allies like Japan and Korea.
Q – How has the work gone over the past year? And will that continue to be such a strong focus for this government?
B – That’s going to continue to be a huge focus. As a government our biggest responsibility if we want to be strong abroad we want to be strong at home. And that means a growing economy, it’s creating jobs. So a nuclear agreement with China and India is huge for the Saskatchewan-based uranium industry. If we get more imports of agricultural products that’s great for Ontario and western Canada. When we have B.C. soft wood lumber, sales going through the roof in that part of the region, that’s great for the West Coast. We have huge opportunities to transport natural gas from eastern Canada. Huge opportunities for Quebec goods and services to be sold abroad. This is really important for us and for our future. So we’ll continue to be a huge priority.
Q – And what else is on the docket for 2013 then?
B – Obviously the situation with Iran, with Syria are obviously top of mind. One file to watch in the new year is Mali, which you’ve raised earlier. At the same we’ll be continuing to push human rights in Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. So it promises to be an interesting and exciting year.
Q – I’d like to wrap up with a bit of a personal question. You’ve been on this job almost for two years. Do you like it?
B – It’s a great job, I’m very blessed. And I never forget it. It’s a great opportunity to promote Canada abroad. Whenever I travel I realize how truly blessed we are in this country, the peace and prosperity we have. You also get to see Canada through other people’s eyes. That’s pretty exciting.
Q – Anything surprising then on how they view Canada?
B – I think Canada increasingly is more respected. We’re increasingly more engaged. One thing that undoubtable is the prime minister – when we go to any democratic table, the G8, NATO, other organizations, the prime minister is one of the deans of the world leaders. And that obviously is a great benefit to Canada. His leadership, his contacts, and the respect that he’s earned over the last seven years are a huge asset for him.
Q – And you’ve jumped around a lot to different portfolios. Are you expecting to stay on?
B – I serve at the will of the prime minister, but I’m quite happy where I am.