WASHINGTON – The federal Liberals aren’t the only ones declaring U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa a triumph for Canada-U.S. relations: Washington’s envoy, too, described it Friday as an “overarching success.”
Biden got what he wanted on several issues, including a clear timeline on key aspects of upgrading Norad, progress on critical minerals and signs the two countries are ever more aligned on China, said U.S. ambassador David Cohen.
On Norad, “the lingering issue of ongoing discussion – it wasn’t a point of contention – was the timing of some of the commitments and what some of the commitments meant in terms of … dollars,” Cohen said.
Those commitments include a $7-billion plan that includes the first of new over-the-horizon radar systems within the next five years, with other upgrades to be completed in time for Canada to welcome its new F-35 fighters.
“For the first time, there is a clear date attached to the operability of at least the first of those (over-the-radar upgrades) being 2028, and that is the year that Norad was looking for.”
Canada has also promised other Norad improvements, including a $7.3-billion refit for the system’s northern forward operating locations, will be ready for the new fleet of jets which are to be fully operational by 2034.
The conversations about Norad have been going on for years, but were likely helped along by last month’s encounter with what turned out to be a Chinese surveillance balloon drifting through North American airspace, Cohen said.
“I think the encounters focused everyone – Canada, the United States and frankly, maybe the rest of the world – on the aggressiveness of China, specifically in the Arctic,” he said.
“I think the balloon provided a public sense of urgency that reinforced the need on the part of both Canada and the United States to pay special attention to continental defence.”
The two countries also outlined Friday an ambitious vision for a robust and reliable supply chain on critical minerals, which are vital elements for the manufacture of electric vehicles, semiconductors and modern-day weaponry.
During a joint news conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, Biden raised eyebrows when he seemed to suggest Canada has no ambitions for its critical-minerals wealth beyond extraction and export.
“We don’t have the minerals to mine; you can mine them,” Biden said. “You don’t want to … turn them into product. We do.”
Cohen shrugged that off, chalking it up as an awkward effort to illustrate how compatible the respective strengths of the two economies promise to be.
“I think the point that he was trying to make was that there were tremendous complementary strengths and opportunities in the critical mineral space between Canada and the United States,” he said.
“Canada has the critical minerals the United States doesn’t have. As a result, Canadian participation in the critical minerals supply chain and value chains is a given.”
As proof, Cohen pointed to the agreement announced Friday with IBM to expand a semiconductor assembly and testing facility in Bromont, Que., creating a corridor between Canada and upstate New York that will involve “every element” of the semiconductor supply chain.
One of the most immediate effects of Biden’s visit was the overnight closure of the Canada-U.S. border to northbound asylum seekers, the result of a “supplement” to a 2004 migration treaty between the two countries.
Weekend media reports described both a mad scramble by migrants to get into Canada via the busy unofficial crossing at Roxham Road before Friday night’s midnight deadline, as well as scores of would-be asylum claimants being turned away in the hours after the new agreement took effect.
It’s part of a broader U.S. vision that aims to address the much larger issue of irregular migration across the continent and around the world, Cohen said.
“The work that we’ve done on the southern border has already had a dramatic impact over the past couple of months, and we’re hoping to see a similar impact on the northern border,” he said.
“But it’s a very difficult issue. It’s not as simple as a policy of saying, ‘We’re going to provide asylum for everyone who seeks it.”’
Cohen said Friday’s visit also helped to blunt a U.S. perception that Canada represents a potential weak link in the effort to present a united foreign-policy front to China, a concern he acknowledged during confirmation hearings back in 2021.
But those were more the views of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who were conducting the hearings than of the Biden administration, said Cohen – and these days, the two countries appear to be working from the same playbook.
“I think the impetus for the questions were – and there’s no secret to this – that Canada has traditionally had a slightly more friendly relationship with China than the United States,” he said.
That all appeared to change dramatically with China’s politically charged detention in 2018 of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were finally freed in September 2021 and were on hand Friday for Biden’s speech to Parliament.
“The Canadian perspective with respect to China has evolved, as has the United States,” Cohen said.
“It is therefore not surprising that the stated policies of Canada toward China now look an awful lot like the United States’ expressed views toward China.”
One area where Biden might well have ended his trip to Ottawa disappointed was on Haiti, the impoverished, leaderless Caribbean nation that has devolved into gang violence since the 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moise.
Canada has committed $100 million in fresh aid to support the Haitian National Police, but has stopped short of committing to any sort of military intervention, insisting the country is in need of homegrown solutions to the crisis.
The U.S. isn’t giving up on the idea of a security force, whether or not it involves Canada, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told the CBC in an interview Sunday.
“We still find value in the potential use of some sort of security force in Haiti,” Kirby said.
“Whatever comes out of that is going to have to be done in full consultation with the Haitian government as well as the UN, and we just aren’t at that point right now.”
The U.S. shares Trudeau’s concerns about the state of the Haitian police and will continue to do what it can to bolster their capabilities, Kirby added.