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U.S. President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Nov. 14, 2022SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In March, 1946, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union asked if it could purchase Britain’s most advanced jet engine, the Rolls-Royce Nene. The Second World War had only just ended, and Britain’s new Labour government, though increasingly concerned about Stalin’s actions, was still eager to co-operate with its former wartime partner.

Britain was already offering to sell its world-leading, formerly top-secret engine to other friendly countries – how could it treat the Soviet Union any differently?

It sold Moscow the engines.

Barely four years later, in November, 1950, United Nations forces in the Korean War had their first encounter with a formidable new fighter aircraft. The Soviet-built MIG-15, flown by China’s air force (and out-of-uniform Soviet pilots) was faster and more capable than anything the allies had, with the one exception of the most advanced U.S. fighter, the F-86 Sabre.

In 1951, the British government was forced to publicly acknowledge that the MIG-15 was powered by a slightly reworked Rolls-Royce Nene. The Soviets had reverse engineered the engine, and put the result at the heart of their new fighter. That aircraft was now shooting down American and British planes over Korea.

By 1951, the Red Scare was in full swing – in Britain, Canada and especially the United States. Communists were believed to be everywhere, from Hollywood to the highest levels of government. In the U.S. Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee sought to hunt them down, calling on loyal Americans to come forward with the names of neighbours and colleagues suspected of being Soviet agents. Soviet agents were assumed to be everywhere and behind everything.

Between 1946 and 1951, the Soviet Union did not much change. But between 1946 and 1951, the Western world’s attitude to the Soviet threat did. It went from denial to paranoid obsession.

Neither was the right response.

You can hear echoes of that history in the past five years of Canada’s relationship with, and attitude toward, the People’s Republic of China. The same story is playing out from the United States to Australia, from the European Union to South Korea.

The pendulum has swung from dreaming of an ever-growing economic relationship, with business and government both imagining a get-rich opportunity with no downside, to seeing China as an omnipresent, multitentacled threat to our economy, our democracy and our society.

On China, we’ve gone from denial to paranoid obsession. Neither is the right response.

The right response, to return to history, is where the Cold War with the Soviet Union eventually ended up: Détente. Not denying the threat, but taking its true measure, and managing it.

Under détente, we didn’t stop worrying about Soviet military aggression or clandestine influence. We did not stop treating the Soviet Union as a threat, and through the NATO alliance, we continued to prepare for the worst.

But while taking prudent defensive measures, we also sought to find a way to live together, with some degree of mutual respect. We tried to agree on rules of permissible behaviour – not to end the competition, which could not be ended, but at least to limit it. After all, a Third World War fought with nuclear weapons would mean that the next war would be fought with rocks and stones.

A China run by the Communist Party is a threat, just as the Soviet Union was. We have no choice but to find ways to minimize the threat, and to counter it. But part of the West’s strategy has to be figuring out how to build an architecture of co-operation with China.

That architecture has to be something different than the eyes-closed approach of the Trudeau government’s early years, which was also the path long favoured by much of Wall Street and Bay Street. But the new policy can’t be its mirror opposite. The eyes-open approach can’t aim for total disengagement. We are not going to stop trading with China. We are not going to stop investing in China, or allowing Chinese investment in Canada. What we have to do is figure out how to continue to allow those things, but at safe levels. The aim isn’t to end the relationship, but to de-risk it.

Nudged by Washington, Wall Street and Bay Street have started to move. Companies such as Apple are shifting some manufacturing out of China, and Quebec’s giant Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is reported to be the latest pension fund taking steps to reduce its investment exposure to China.

At the same time, however, the Biden administration is trying to open lines dialogue with Beijing. It hasn’t had much luck. The freak-out over a Chinese balloon floating over North America earlier this year scotched a visit to China by the U.S. Secretary of State; it has yet to be rescheduled. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has been trying to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, but has been rebuffed – in part owing to China’s upset at a U.S. law passed in 2017 that sanctions Mr. Li.

We have no choice but to be vigilant about China, including its attempts to meddle in Canada’s elections. We can’t bury our heads in the sand, as we did for years. China is a superpower, and superpowers are going to try to meddle. It is up to us to prevent it from doing so.

But while being vigilant about China, we have to find ways to co-operate with it. It is the world’s second-largest economy, so we can’t ignore it. It is also by far the world’s largest polluter, which means that climate change can’t be addressed without it.

As it was with the Soviet Union, so it is with China. We have no choice but to protect ourselves from its dangers – and no choice but to find a way to live with it.

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