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Charles Burton
Charles Burton

CHARLES BURTON

With Beijing, it’s never just about free trade Add to ...

Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University, and is a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing

Like it or not, Canada opens exploratory free-trade talks with China on Monday with an initial four-day session in Beijing. Opinion polls indicate most Canadians do not want further political-economic integration with China, but elements of Canada’s business elite, with lucrative connections to Chinese business networks, are lobbying the Prime Minister’s Office hard to push on. Among them are wealthy friends of our political-party leaders and Chinese nationals who we have recently learned attend political fundraisers even though Canadian law forbids them from making party contributions.

Edward Mansfield and Helen Milner, the leading scholars of international trade, say free-trade agreements (FTAs) “are designed to foster economic integration among member states by improving and stabilizing each member’s access to other participants’ markets.”

But a Canada-China deal implies much more than removing tariff barriers to the flow of goods and services. China sees FTAs as a geopolitical strategy, good not just for enhancing economic interests but advancing its long-term foreign-policy goals. Indeed, Beijing has recently given up favourable terms in trade agreements with Asian countries, with an eye to transferring their economic dependence on Japan and Taiwan over to the PRC.

China sees similar advantage in weaning Canada away from our economic and political alliance with the United States, but it also expects to get compromises that further its regime interests. Canada has already ceded ground on this, making recent concessions – with no promise whatsoever of reciprocal considerations – to ease limits on Chinese state investment in Canada; seize and repatriate assets of certain Chinese nationals in Canada; and (inexplicably) reverse a national security review that prevented a Beijing-backed concern from buying Canadian advanced laser technology with military application for directed-energy weapons that China is desperate to develop.

It is unlikely Ottawa will want to spoil FTA talks by reiterating its support for the International Court of Arbitration’s decision declaring China’s expansion into the South China Sea as illegal under the Law of the Sea; or demanding China halt its pervasive cyberespionage of Canadian government and business servers; or expelling Chinese “officials” alleged to be furthering Beijing’s interests by harassment and intimidation here in Canada; or – especially – by voicing deep concerns over the PRC’s appalling skulduggery to suppress the aspirations to freedom, democracy and human rights of people in Hong Kong and in Taiwan.

The other concern is whether, ultimately, Canada can even bring home a deal that actually expands our share of the Chinese market. We know that Ambassador John McCallum is feeling an intense burden to show progress before the next election, but the precedent of our previous Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement with China – which made considerable concessions to Beijing on labour and environmental standards, and delivered little benefit to Canadian investors in China – does not bode well. Beijing knows the government of Canada is under pressure to land a deal; they already sense a negotiating advantage and will hang tough on making any meaningful concessions to close.

That said, the PRC also realizes that its reputation suffers from the unethical behaviour of Chinese state firms’ foreign operations, and that foreign corporations operating in China are increasingly fed up with pervasive corruption, lack of impartial due process of law and the imposition of non-tariff barriers that make it increasingly challenging to succeed in business there. China’s threat last year to impose impossible purity standards on Canada’s $2-billion annual canola-seed exports to China – restrictions that were not imposed on Chinese domestic producers – should have been a wake-up call for us.

Any FTA with China should be ironclad, with mechanisms that ensure China will follow the letter and spirit of an agreement that inviolably guarantees Canada will enjoy mutually reciprocal benefits. The Canadian government should be fully accountable to prepare measures to address concomitant concerns over Canadian sovereignty, security and our commitment to the universal norms of human rights that are inevitably part and parcel of getting closer to China.

Canadians must demand transparency and an honest debate on what we are getting into with China. But will we get it?

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