Skip to main content

How a powerhouse of 1.4 billion people was left out of the Munk Debate

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left to right, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair leave the stage following the Munk Debate on Canada's foreign policy in Toronto, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

On June 17, 2011, Rudyard Griffiths came to Roy Thomson Hall to host an important foreign policy debate.

"Be it resolved," he said, "the 21st century will belong to China."

On Monday night, Mr. Griffiths returned to Roy Thomson Hall for another key foreign policy discussion, this time with the three men who want to be Canada's leader.

Story continues below advertisement

Only this time, China may as well not have existed.

Syria, Ukraine and the U.S. occupied long segments of the debate, the first of its kind. But Canada's second-largest trading partner, a country whose ascending economic and political strength have already made it a significant global centre of power, rated no discussion.

The omission baffled observers.

"This debate was where it was expected the parties would make a clear statement of their differing approaches to the challenge China makes to Canadian interests and values," said Charles Burton, a China expert at Brock University.

He accused debate organizers of not wanting "to be the platform where our important concerns about the challenge that the Chinese regime presents to Canada are aired."

Neil Tait, a former senior vice-president of Asian banking for Bank of Montreal, and one of Canada's most-connected figures in China, said the omission underscores a broader problem for a country that prefers "not to engage somewhere that's 5,000 miles away when we have the United States just across our border."

Leaving China out of the debate is "a pity. And I think it's emblematic of what goes on in Canada," he said. "I'd like to see the next leadership come up with a China strategy, which we don't have."

Story continues below advertisement

Paul Evans, a professor at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively on Sino-Canadian relations, called it "not just an error of omission, it was an error of commission." Prof. Evans said, "despite considerable effort on our part to get China, Asia and power shift on to the list of questions, the response [was] that none of the parties really wanted to address them."

Indeed, the decision to drop China from the debate was not accidental. It came after a month of consideration between organizers and an expert panel that helped whittle discussion down to six topics.

They sought subjects with "the greatest division among the three candidates, because we wanted a debate," said one of the panel members, who asked not to be named because the advice was confidential.

No panelist disagreed "that China is among the most important relationships. But we could not find real policy disagreement among the three parties. All three parties support trade with China, all three parties expressed concern about human rights. There was no debate question."

Mr. Griffiths did not respond to a request for comment late Monday. Patrick Luciana, who works alongside the moderator, said he "can't imagine the Munk debates censoring any topic. All I can say is that China isn't much of an issue in this election."

In the ongoing U.S. campaign, by contrast, Beijing's growing financial and military muscle has occupied the spotlight amid fears of American primacy under threat.

Story continues below advertisement

"We don't win anymore. We lose to China," Republican candidate Donald Trump has said (a YouTube video mashup watched nearly two million times shows him saying "China" hundreds of times). Other Republicans have called for an aggressive response to Beijing over allegations of cyber-hacking and currency manipulation.

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton added her voice, calling Chinese president Xi Jinping "shameless" for hosting a United Nations meeting on women's rights while Chinese authorities arrest local women's rights advocates.

None of those issues are uniquely American concerns: Canada, too, has blamed China for hacking government computers. Canadian manufacturers have also felt the pain of China's rise – aided in part by its currency – while human rights are concerns in Canada.

And like the rest of the world, Canada is buffeted by China's rise, a change Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, calls a central element in a new and dramatically different world order now taking form.

"China now has the material capabilities and increasingly the military power to assert itself in East Asia in ways that we really have not seen for almost two-and-a-half centuries," she said in a recent interview with Mr. Griffiths.

Yet China has barely featured on the campaign trail. The Conservatives have promised to measure and, if necessary, work to "curb foreign speculation in Canada's residential real estate market" – but the China-oriented policy does not mention the country by name.

Story continues below advertisement

China actually received only slightly more attention in the domestic policy debates.

The scarce mentions may reflect waning interest among Canadians. Polling by the Asia Pacific Foundation found that in 2012, 55 per cent felt Asia should be a top priority, and in 2014, that had fallen to 39 per cent. A steep slide in a short time.

China is aware it commands limited attention in Canada.

But statistics suggest a need for more. China surpassed the U.K. as Canada's second-most important trading partner in 2012, while the number of people speaking Mandarin at home in Canada rose 51 per cent between 2006 and 2011 (only Tagalog climbed faster). Among those whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, 16.3 per cent now speak Chinese languages.

There is, then, a certain irony in the Canadian election itself sinking one possible chance to improve cross-Pacific relations.

Mr. Xi spent last week in the U.S. on a trip that could have brought him to Canada as well. But despite interest from Chinese diplomats in arranging an Ottawa visit, Mr. Xi stayed south of the border. A potentially controversial visit from a foreign dignitary was not considered welcome in the midst of a Canadian campaign – particularly a campaign that has shown little interest in China.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter