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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

The Harperites get the hang of China Add to ...

Finally, belatedly, the Harper government understands the importance of China.

Nearly everyone else in Canada figured this out a long time ago, from premiers to previous governments, from important businesses to a few academic institutions. But on arriving in office, the Conservatives - painfully unschooled in international affairs and imprisoned in ideological straitjackets - offered an approach to Beijing that mixed the snub and the lecture.

As if the Chinese cared. The whole world wanted China's attention - and its money. If one little, pretentious country of 33 million people didn't care about the Middle Kingdom, the Chinese could frankly have cared less.

There is this thing about the Harper Conservatives revealed by their policy (if we can call it that) toward China. It takes a maddeningly long time for the Conservatives to drop their ideological nostrums and face facts.

When they do, they never admit to changing course. The four senior cabinet ministers who have been to China in the past four months - the latest being Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, made scarce mention of human rights, did not hector the Chinese and, instead, talked about economics, trade and investment. (About climate change, central to the U.S.-Chinese dialogue these days, the ministers had little to say, Canada being such a laggard on the file.)

Mr. Flaherty had recently been in Brazil, where he bubbled about the importance of that country. Other senior ministers have also been to Brazil in recent months. In the spring, a boatload of deputy ministers travelled to that country.

Brazil, Russia, India and China are part of a group whose acronym, BRIC, suggests a unity of purpose not easily practised. Their leaders meet as a kind of counterpoint to the G8. Their relations are getting closer, as in trade between China and Brazil.

But they still don't have that much in common, except that they are variously unhappy with world institutions, would like to play a larger role in them, and have economies, populations or natural resources (in the case of Russia) to make the rest of the world take notice.

The Harper government, again belatedly, seems to have awakened to this new global reality, one part of which is the emergence of these countries - and the flip side of which is the relative decline of the United States.

When the Harperites took office, and for most of the time since, they were transfixed by Canada-U.S. relations. Pro-American to a person, the party leadership seemed to think that the Liberals had dirtied the well with the United States and that they would do better.

The facts, however, are that the Americans are becoming more protectionist in defending their interests, courtesy of the recession, even though the hugely popular President Barack Obama resides in the White House instead of the egregious George W. Bush.

The United States has stored up for itself years of trouble or, to be more charitable, faces a series of enormous challenges caused by ideologies, profligacies and lifestyles that will weigh down the country for a long time.

America is in debt beyond its imagination, greatly dependent on foreign oil, overextended militarily, selling less than it produces, and apparently unable to get a grip on future liabilities such as runaway health-care costs and unfunded future liabilities for Social Security.

Geography, history and shared values, among other factors, will always tie Canada to the United States. But the post-Cold War dominance of the United States is fading perceptibly, with long-term consequences for any country (read Canada) tied so tightly to its star.

Whether the Canadian business world, writ large, or the country's universities and thinkers understand this shift remains doubtful. Until recently, it was apparent that the Conservative government did not. How else to explain that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has never undertaken a bilateral visit to any of the BRIC countries.

(In fairness, the uncertainties of minority government pinned Mr. Harper to Ottawa, and caused him to organize tours scattering announcements across Canada, more than if he had led a majority government.)

That the realities of the world have slowly shaken the Conservatives' prejudices and removed their blinkers can only be welcomed, although the frustration remains about why it took so long for these realities to become apparent.

 

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