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New Documents Show Canada Fired Back Diplomatically at China Over Hacking

Canada’s then foreign minister told his Chinese counterpart last summer to stop hacking Canadian secrets. China didn’t deny it.
Ng Han Guan/EPA

New documents obtained by VICE News under the Access to Information Act show Canada took a harsh diplomatic stance against brazen state-sponsored Chinese hackers stealing valuable intel from the country's top scientific research body.

Last summer John Baird, then the minister of Foreign Affairs, met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing only days after Canada's signals intelligence agency confirmed hackers from China were targeting Canadian secrets.

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The meeting was originally supposed to be about raising Canada's issues with the communist country's human rights record, demanding Canadians imprisoned in the country's jails get due process, and to improve trade and investment opportunities between the two.

But Baird's meeting was clouded by the specter of geopolitics and fresh Chinese cyber attacks against the National Research Council (NRC), which is a government body responsible for corporate and industrial research.

The documents show cyber security was quickly added to the priority list for Baird's meeting, an apparent and sudden response to the uncovered hacks against the NRC.

While the notes are heavily redacted by the the government — invoking that the information if revealed could be "injurious to the conduct of international affairs, [or] the defense of Canada" under the Access to Information Act — the emails between Canadian bureaucrats show specific notes about "cyber" clearly added at the last minute.

One of the talking points relating to the cyber attacks left unredacted reads "Cyber: concerned by reports of Chinese cybertheft."

That said, the summary of the meeting produced after Baird's one-on-one say the "meetings were held in a very positive atmosphere," but noted there were "sensitive issues, including the issuance of a press release during the visit on Chinese state-sponsored actors hacking the National Research Council's computer systems, were dealt with [REDACTED]."

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But a source close to Baird, with knowledge of the meeting, says the Chinese were less than apologetic. Instead, as the source explained, while the Chinese occasionally react defiantly to being confronted, they took Baird's accusation in stride and didn't even deny they were behind the hacking — a rare move suggesting the Chinese are becoming more at ease with open cyber war with western powers.

Other talking points produced on the same day — potentially for the same meeting — reads that "Canada has a strategic interest in preserving an open cyberspace," that "Canada is concerned by the real and immediate threat posed by malicious cyber actions initiated by state and/or non-state actors," but that "we don't believe that new international organizations or treaties…are required to address cyber security issues."

Baird's meeting was originally meant to prepare for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's arrival in Beijing a few months later. The Chinese also had a few of their own issues to discuss — they wanted to gauge Canada's position on its militarization of the South China Sea.

According to the meeting summary, "China laid out its well-known position on the South China Sea." Baird, as it turns out, didn't have much to say about an issue that is now a delicate military and diplomatic situation in the region.

Motherboard: China Says Hackers Hijacked Its Internet Traffic But Experts Don't Buy It

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That summer, tensions in the sea were at a boiling point. Beijing had begun to aggressively flex its muscle in the area, contesting that it had sole sovereignty in the oil-and-gas-rich area, which is claimed, in various parts, by four other nations.

The Canadian government, however, didn't seem to want to press the issue.

Under its "defensive lines," which are talking points not to be brought up pro-actively, Baird was to reiterate that "Canada does not generally take a position on foreign maritime boundary or territorial disputes. Canada shares an interest in freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the region."

While Baird was supposed to underline that he was "concerned that increased activity of maritime enforcement and naval assets increase the risk of a violent confrontation that is nobody's interest," he didn't do much to tell China to end its claim for the area, which has since inflamed tensions amongst China's neighbors. Instead, he called on all parties to "refrain from coercive action," and simply encouraged negotiations.

Canada's tightrope-walking on the issue led to an awkward moment last month, when Harper held a joint press conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. The Canadian prime minister was asked about his country's position on the South China Sea dispute.

Harper quickly iterated that Canada has no formal position, it's against provocation, and it wants everyone to respect international treaties.

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Oppositely, President Barack Obama has consistently criticized China's aggressive behavior in the region and for "using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions."

The thorny issue is one of a couple that Canada was uninterested in poking. Also on that list was the Dalai Lama.

Before Baird's July meeting, it was announced that the exiled Tibetan leader would be holding events in Vancouver, coinciding with the prime minister's October visit to China.

Defensive lines on that topic read that, "Canada recognizes the People's Republic of China as the legitimate Government of China, and does not recognize the Tibetan 'government-in-exile."

While that's a long-standing government position, it's not something they look to say publicly, noting in the documents that the Dalai Lama was on "a private visit and the Government of Canada is playing no role in its organizing."

Canada, on the other hand, was much more aggressive on other files. Baird pressed Yi on the consular case of Huseyincan Celil, a Uyghur imam arrested by China on, seemingly, trumped-up terrorism charges. Celil, who holds Canadian citizenship, has been in prison since 2006, serving a life sentence.

Baird also listed a host of other "ordinary law-abiding Uyghurs" who have been arrested in recent years and, according to Baird's notes, "may be bearing the brunt of the anti-terrorism campaign."

The meeting illustrates the delicate diplomatic dance between Canada and China. While certain issues — hacking, human rights — get Ottawa's back up, other diplomatically sensitive files get treated with caution around members of the Communist Politburo.

Follow Justin Ling and Ben Makuch on Twitter at @justin_ling and @bMakuch