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We should keep doors open and continue dialogue with China

By David Crane       

Justin Trudeau appears to have consigned his euphoric new relationship with China into the dustbin. But if Andrew Scheer wins, the outlook could be even worse given his embrace of the Trump administration’s economic war with China.

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TORONTO—October 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Canada and China? But will there be a celebration party? At present, it seems highly unlikely.

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wins re-election this fall, given the breakdown of relations that are based in part on his own costly miscalculations, it certainly is doubtful. It would take, at the very least, freeing Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and allow Huawei itself to be a supplier on Canada’s 5G infrastructure. But Trudeau appears to have consigned his much-promised and euphoric new relationship with China into the dustbin.

If Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wins, the outlook could be even worse given his embrace of the Trump administration’s economic war with China, as set out in his recent foreign policy speech. Scheer says China is a huge threat and says it wants to dominate the world in the 21st century though if any country wants to dominate it is much more likely to be the U.S.

How different things were when the two countries celebrated the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2010. Then-prime minister Stephan Harper was in Beijing where he declared, with then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at his side, that, “today, the relationship between our two dynamic nations is flourishing, with more trade, more people-to-people links and more cooperation on a wide variety of issues than ever before,” adding that, “as we move forward to a new era of partnership, we should cooperate for even stronger relations.”

While Harper, after becoming prime minister in 2006, had launched into an unnecessary public feud with China that put relations into a deep freeze, he eventually recognized that Canada could not ignore a country that was destined to become the world’s largest economy, with the world’s fastest-growing middle-class consumer market. Scheer, however, seems prepared to pursue a politically opportunistic, short-term policy on China, risking Canada’s significant longer-term interests.

In his recent foreign policy speech, Scheer blamed Trudeau for difficulties with China. But the speech also showed that Scheer has no solution to current impasses with China, ranging from the questionable imprisonment of two Canadians to the suspension of shipments of canola.

There is plenty of room for legitimate criticism over Trudeau’s broader mishandling of the China file, but the current difficulties are the direct outcome of Canada’s decision to accede to a U.S. request for extradition of Huawei executive Meng, with her arrest in Vancouver. Does Scheer think we should have warned Meng off before she arrived, as some argue, since Canada was not a party to the U.S. Iran sanctions?

A Scheer government would ban Huawei from participating in Canada’s 5G infrastructure without waiting for the report from Canada’s cybersecurity experts and ignoring the fact that British and German experts have concluded that Huawei technology can be safely used in their 5G networks. Both Bell Canada and Telus have good working relationships with Huawei and would like to use its technology.

A Scheer government would also withdraw Canada from the multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, ignoring the fact that countries such as Germany, Britain, France, Sweden, Israel, Korea, and Australia see benefits in being members. The Harper government, under pressure from the U.S., decided against joining but the Trudeau government did join, allocating $265-million over five years, arguing this would increase the opportunity for Canadian companies to join in projects.

Not only would a Scheer government rule out the pursuit of a free trade or major trade enhancement agreement. It would go further, depicting China as a threat to “Canadian security and prosperity in the 21st century” and demanding major changes within China before any serious resumption of normal relations.

Scheer rejected looking to China as a way to diversify trade and reduce dependence on the U.S., declaring China’s policies meant that “we have no other choice as Canadians but to consider other trading partners.”

There is plenty of room to criticize the Trudeau government’s handling of the China relationship. Prime Minister Trudeau never devised an all-of-government, long-term China strategy, which set out the relationship the government sought. We needed a China strategy white paper. Instead, policy seemed to be opportunistic, built around the idea of promoting Trudeau as a fresh new face “restarting” the relationship, as a kind of celebrity politician.

But Trudeau failed to recognize his own lack of experience in dealing with an experienced Chinese leadership. And much of his focus in talking trade with China was on his “progressive” trade policy with chapters on labour, feminism, and so forth that seemed directed more at Canadian audiences rather than with seriously engaging the Chinese.

It was never clear what Trudeau wanted in a free trade agreement—was it something like the Australian agreement? Or something else? His government also talked about sectoral free trade agreements with China, but these are not permitted on a bilateral basis by the World Trade Organization.

Now we are stuck and Canada could be the big loser as China looks elsewhere. There are legitimate reasons for raising human rights issues with China. Canadians expect it and the Chinese know we have to do it. But we also need to recognize that China is trying to compress into decades what the West took centuries to accomplish in building the institutions for the rule of law and democratic institutions, and do this in a country of 1.3 billion people.

China today is a much more open society than it was 25 years ago. And Chinese are now free to travel and study abroad and see how others live just as trade and investment have opened Chinese eyes as to how market economies function.

It would be a huge mistake to erect walls now to contain China. We should want to keep doors open and continue dialogue, despite all the difficulties. It is possible, and desirable, to have a productive relationship with China despite our differences, but that requires a serious leadership that seem to be lacking.

David Crane can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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