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Canada called on to increase spying on China

Diplomats poor at interpreting country for Ottawa, report says, suggesting intelligence agencies step up
By COLIN FREEZE, The Globe and Mail
February 27, 2009

Canada has to ratchet up its ability to spy on China, an ex-diplomat writes in a new report, arguing Chinese agents are infiltrating the Canadian embassy in Beijing and disrupting the lives of dissidents in Canada

A study released this week, A Reassessment of Canada's Interests in China, finds that Ottawa's failure to keep its eyes and ears trained on the world's most populous, and economically dynamic, country is having consequences. Much of the study's focus is on China's unconstrained spying and Canada's relative naiveté.

For example, Ottawa's envoys to China are said to be so Mandarin-illiterate that they "cannot even read the local daily newspaper" without soliciting the help of locals, whose loyalties are always in question.

And because diplomats are felt to be doing a poor job of interpreting China for Ottawa, federal intelligence agencies are urged to step up.

The report argues that better counterespionage (from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), improved eavesdropping (from the Communications Security Establishment), and more rigorous assessments (from the Privy Council Office) could improve matters.

These are among the suggestions of Charles Burton, a Mandarin-speaking Canadian professor who spent much of the 1990s posted to Beijing as a diplomat. His study was commissioned by the Canadian International Council, a foreign-policy think tank started by Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie.

Though not endorsed by Ottawa, the essay expands on earlier concerns about Chinese espionage. Those worries have been expressed by CSIS director Jim Judd, Colin Kenny, the chair of the Senate committee on national security, and top Conservative Party politicians, who were generally more vocal before forming government.

The report highlights a litany of issues, from Canada's growing trade deficit with China to its continued policy of providing aid. The most intriguing findings focus on intelligence gathering, ranging from secret communications intercepts to the most basic means of keeping tabs on a foreign country.

For example, it clearly vexes Mr. Burton that the bosses in his old workplace invite in locals so they can interpret newspapers and TV news. "These Chinese citizens ... must be assumed to report to the Chinese Government and Communist Party agencies," he writes. "... Some are almost certainly in the direct employ of security agencies."

He urges Canada to kick out Chinese support staff and bring in Chinese-speaking Canadians.

Another problem, perhaps widespread within embassies grappling to function in the Internet age, are highly general intelligence reports they send home. "Many of these classified political assessments are often on topics self-selected by junior political officers," Mr. Burton writes. He wryly suggests that Ottawa officials instead spend their money on subscriptions to The Economist or Foreign Affairs.

Canada lacks a foreign-intelligence agency, and doesn't generally run clandestine operations overseas. Even so, it is suggested there are ways of filling the intelligence gap.

The paper recommends an obvious start is for Ottawa to better safeguard ethnic and ideological minorities whom Beijing harasses at home and abroad. "Canada should strengthen the China-specific expertise of CSIS counterespionage officers," he writes. "And be more pro-active in responding to Canadians of [Chinese] origin, including ethnic Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongolians."

Diplomats and CSIS operatives alike are faulted for their general lack of language skills, but other, more obscure agencies may have done better.

The paper says the federal electronic-eavesdropping entity, the CSE, and Ottawa's bureaucratic nexus, the PCO, have developed relatively solid Mandarin capabilities - though where the expertise came from is unclear.

Ultimately, "reporting on China by [Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada], and the intelligence assessment staff of the [PCO] as well as the [CSE] and [CSIS] should be refocused away from general assessments," Mr. Burton writes. "... And should instead focus reporting on practical matters directly related to Canada's interests."

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