Why Canada needs a new approach to China

Wendy Dobson and Paul Evans | November 17, 2015

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and China’s President Xi Jinping met for the first time at the G20 Summit on the weekend. Before the end of the month, they will meet again at the APEC summit and at the UN Climate Change Conference.

While Pierre Trudeau had extensive Chinese experience before assuming office in 1968, our new Prime Minister does not. And the Chinese have no experience of him.

China was not mentioned in the Liberal election platform or in the Leaders’ foreign policy debate. But it should be no surprise that a fresh wind will be blowing in bilateral relations. After a decade of inconsistent, conflicted and incremental policies of the Stephen Harper government the time has come for creative thinking, a more strategic approach and national leadership.

The timing is good. In September, Mr. Xi’s U.S. visit symbolized China’s role as a peer, highlighted cooperation on climate change but resolved few of the difficulties in Sino-American relations. Australia is ratifying a free-trade agreement with Beijing.

Britain and China embarked on a new “global comprehensive strategic partnership” amidst the pomp and splendour of a majestic state visit to Britain. The Queen spoke of a “truly global partnership” and their joint roles as “stewards of the rules-based international system.” The David Cameron government clinched a series of trade and investment deals that are part of a longer economic game. Earlier in the year the British government broke ranks with the G7 to sign up for Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.

The British shift reflects a new calculation about the changing balance of power in Asia and realpolitik thinking in which no country is an eternal ally or a perpetual enemy. London’s special relationship with the United States continues, even though the timing of the shift with China coincides with deepening China-U.S. tensions in cyber space and the South China Sea.

As much as a new Canadian approach to China is needed it would be a mistake to believe that the clock can be wound back to the engagement approach of earlier Canadian governments or that we can simply emulate the British government’s shift marked by a singularly economic focus. Canada needs an entirely new approach to China, based on a three-pronged strategy.

First, Canada should adopt a collaborative approach to our complementary economic interests: Canada has what China needs for energy, natural resources and food security and services for its growing middle class. Twinning energy and environment could be a signature feature. Australians will out-compete us unless we move on a bilateral free-trade agreement.

Secondly, Canada should play a proactive middle-power role in the Asia-Pacific region by deepening our partnerships with Australia’s new Prime Minister, Indonesia and South Korea. We should begin with a defence and security review and active assistance for institution building and rules needed to manage the strategic rebalancing underway.

Finally, we must protect and support Canadian values while finding ways to help build Chinese capabilities consistent with the evolving legal system and building on valued Canadian contribution in the past in education and two-way flows of people.

This strategy demands a new kind of leadership that informs Canadians of the importance of the relationship and coordinates a whole-of-country approach while consolidating high-level dialogues with the Chinese leadership.

Mr. Trudeau will face the challenge in Canada of addressing public anxieties about deeper bilateral engagement. Worries about differing business and regulatory practices, behaviour of about state owned enterprises and purchases of urban real estate imply the need for an informed national conversation about realizing the opportunities and managing the risks.

Canadians need a new narrative of engagement. The existing argument of assisting economic opening and promoting China’s involvement in international institutions as ways to speed political liberalization has been not been borne out – at least not yet. The reality is that we must learn to live with China as it is while standing up for our own values and institutions.

A new whole-of-country approach to Canada’s China policy will require time to implement. But in the coming month our new Prime Minister has the opportunity to strike a constructive and imaginative tone for what will follow.

Wendy Dobson is Professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and Paul Evans teaches Asian and Transpacific Relations at the University of British Columbia. They are the co-authors of ‘The Future of Canada’s Relationship with China’, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

The Future of Canada’s Relationship with China

The Future of Canada’s Relationship with China

More generous cash-transfer benefit would improve access to essentials, says IRPP report
More generous cash-transfer benefit would improve access to essentials, says IRPP report