Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Strategic patience. That’s what’s needed now with China.
Canada did the right thing in acceding to the U.S. Justice Department’s request to extradite Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou. We long ago allied ourselves to the United States, and this partnership serves Canadian interests.
Unfortunately, our China relationship is now as much hostage to the outcome of the Sino-American trade dispute as are our hostages: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The affair does demonstrate to Canadians a different face of China: the ‘claws of the panda’ – the descriptive title of Jonathan Manthorpe’s book outlining Chinese efforts at intimidation and influence in Canada.
Like the rest of the West, successive Canadian governments were dazzled by Chinese growth. The lure of contracts mostly turned a blind eye to its authoritarian excesses. The Harper government had reservations, but most Western governments were willing to give China the benefit of the doubt over its authoritarianism and human-rights abuses. The prevailing belief was that economic progress would inevitably lead to political liberalization.
It turns out that Western democratic liberalism is neither easily transferable nor inevitable. Like Mao Zedong, Chinese President Xi Jinping has achieved personal rule through the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Xi is reverting to state control of the economy.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to confront China over its trade practices is long overdue. The forced transfers of technology from companies that partner with Chinese companies, intellectual-property theft, subsidies to state-owned enterprises and dumping steel has hurt Canadians as well as Americans.
The Sino-American tariff war is set to resume in March when U.S rates are scheduled to rise. The tariffs have disrupted the markets and supply chains. They are also hurting the Chinese economy, but the Chinese show no signs of making the necessary structural changes, nor are we anywhere near the verification and enforcement provisions the United States deems foundational to any China deal.
The Trump approach is awkward. But bringing along the trading partners and using multilateralism is not the Trump way.
Our hostages, meanwhile, are two months into their Chinese captivity. We need to continue rallying international support for their release. It’s a sad reflection on the West that our allies required encouragement, and even then not everyone stood up.
Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye describes Canadian actions as “white supremacy.” He wants us to stop. We must not. We need to keep the public spotlight on our hostages. We should raise their plight in the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Chinese treatment of minority Uyghurs has already come under condemnation.
It’s also time for a strategic shift in Canada’s Asia-Pacific policy. We need to move away from its overriding emphasis on China and focus more on developing markets and shoring up trade and security relations with our democratic partners in the Pacific.
The “window is open” says Japanese Ambassador Kimihiro Ishikane. The Japanese have not always been so forthcoming, so we should take up their offer to expand trade and investment with the world’s third-largest economy.
We also need to make sure we are taking full advantage of our free-trade agreement with South Korea.
Above all, we should prioritize the new Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with resources and attention. The new partnership, with its high standards and enforcement provisions on intellectual property, labour and the environment, is now our main entrée into the Pacific. We need to encourage the remaining ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and other Pacific countries to join up. With a different president, the United States will likely rejoin the pact. In different circumstances, China might also come aboard. As a recent Peterson Institute report argues, membership offers China a chance “to shape the global innovation economy while signalling clear commitment to outward-oriented reforms and global norms.”
As long as China wants regional dominance with kowtowing tributaries, Canada’s relationship with the Middle Kingdom will be difficult.
China wants to influence our thinking on China, but we need to be sure that its efforts are transparent. We need to practise constructive vigilance in our dealings. This means close attention to Chinese involvement with our businesses, elected officials and academic institutions. We must resist any effort to undermine our democracy. The rule of the law is what differentiates our system from theirs.
Once our hostages are returned, we need a public debate before resetting the relationship. For now, with our trade ambitions in the deep freeze, the best approach to China is strategic patience and a focus on our democratic Pacific partners.