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The Globe and Mail

Why are Canada’s party leaders ignoring China?

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

Canadians have a lot of interest in China, but you wouldn't know it by following our federal election campaign.

While relations with China get prominent play among Democrats and Republicans chasing the U.S. presidency, in this country the three main parties have been quiet about how they will respond to the challenge China poses to Canadian interests and values, and indeed to international global relations in general. Maybe it's because none of them are prepared to expound the kind of China policy that most Canadians would support.

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There are a number of questions about China that beg public debate, questions that are very important to Canada's future.

Take the Chinese state firm Nexen, whose oil spill in Alberta this summer led it to suspend some pipeline operations while investigators probe possible non-compliance with safety and environmental regulations. Such events make Canadians question not just the value but the integrity of Chinese state investment in Canada. For instance, in 2012 when the Chinese National Overseas Oil Corporation (CNOOC) wanted Ottawa's permission to buy the Calgary-based Nexen, CNOOC promised to keep all staff and management and said it had no plans to change how Nexen was run. A year later CNOOC replaced Nexen chief Kevin Reinhart with a Chinese Communist cadre, and Nexen's former reputation for high standards of corporate social responsibility is now in serious doubt.

At that time, the Liberal Party came out strongly in support of encouraging and unfettering Chinese state investment in Canada in all sectors. But what do they say now? We don't know. Likewise, the NDP has little to say on this subject or on Chinese non-tariff barriers to Canadian access to China's market, possibly because under leader Thomas Mulcair the NDP wants to distance itself from traditional perceptions that the party does not support foreign trade and investment in Canada.

It's also interesting that trade talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently exclude China. Some claim that's the point of the TPP in the first place, to constrain Beijing's economic reach. But China wants in. Are there any conditions under which Canada would agree to China's admission to the TPP? Our major political parties should have a position on this. What is it? Canadians want to know.

Or how about the Dalai Lama, an honorary citizen of Canada thanks to a unanimous vote in the House of Commons. This highly respected symbol of the struggle of ethnic minorities for political rights and dignity has been given short shrift lately by Western leaders reluctant to meet him and affirm their support for human rights in China. This is because Beijing directs state firms to sanction nations whose leaders have sat down with the Dalai Lama. South Africa even denied the Dalai Lama a visa to enter the country for a meeting with his fellow Nobel laureates. Will Canada's next government follow suit after Oct. 19? We don't know where our political parties stand on this.

Compared to our allies, Canada has weak legislation to counter the pervasive issue of transferring proprietary manufacturing, military technologies and classified data to agents of foreign powers. The United States and China recently signed a pact to address cyber-sabotage of key infrastructure in time of war. There is also talk in the U.S. about sanctioning Chinese firms that benefit from data hacked by the cyber-units of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Canada has been victim to several serious incidents of cyber-hacking of government servers since 2011, but what is the stance of our parties on this threat to our prosperity and security? Do any of them even have a position on this?

The reluctance of our politicians to be forthcoming about China is really a function of the fact that China has a lot of money to spend in Canada, to the benefit of Canadians. Political leaders at all levels have extensive – and lucrative – China ties, from Brian Mulroney's board membership in the China International Trust and Investment Corporation, to Stockwell Day's on the Canada China Business Council, through Liberals such as Jean Chrétien.

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It's little wonder that reticence on the China question is more and more a part of Canada's elite political culture, but maybe the real responsibility lies with we the voters.

Canadians should demand specific answers on how our political parties would address the Chinese challenge to Canadian interests and values – before we cast our ballot.

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