Skip to main content

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and China Premier Li Keqiang embrace on Sept. 23, 2016 at a conference of the Canada China Business Council in Montreal.Clement Sabourin/AFP / Getty Images

It was, for some members of the federal government, a week to cringe.

On Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang launched his visit to Canada with some ebullient words: "This is the season for the fiery maple in Canada, symbolizing the prosperity of China-Canada all-round co-operation," he effused in these pages. His visit would bring together "true friends who feel close even when thousands of miles apart," he said.

That dose of syrup sat heavily atop Tuesday's news that the government is discussing an extradition treaty with China, just as a source revealed that Chinese secret agents had routinely been sneaking into Canada on tourist visas to threaten and intimidate Chinese Canadians whom they see as economic fugitives and dissidents to be brought back to justice in China.

Read more: Chinese Premier wraps up Ottawa visit with free-trade pitch

Read more: Dion denies extradition treaty negotiations with China

There was an alarming sense that Canada, in order to win economic concessions, might be too willing to co-operate with Beijing's darker instincts.

After weeks of excited buzz about a lucrative free-trade deal, it felt like the Li-Trudeau bromance had crossed a boundary into awkward territory.

It heightened a question that has hung over Justin Trudeau's plans to build a new relationship between Canada and China. What is the big picture? What are Canada's goals and ambitions in devoting itself to a closer relationship with China?

Mr. Trudeau has yet to deliver a major speech or policy statement laying out his long game on China. And the Liberal government does not appear to share anything like a united vision. You hear different things about China from Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, from International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and from the Prime Minister's Office. Department of National Defence officials fret out loud about the potential dangers to Canada's relations with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while the Canadian Security Intelligence Service drops off-record hints about data breaches, spies and political saboteurs emerging from Beijing.

"We don't have a whole-country approach to China yet, or even a whole-government approach," says Paul Evans, a veteran Asia diplomat and scholar based at the University of British Columbia who has briefed government officials on China policy.

"It's not as if there's a game plan pinned on the wall. The Prime Minister's Office has inclinations and instincts on things they want to do with China, but the big geostrategic question of how to deal with China at a time of deepening U.S. tensions and a power shift – some of those pieces started to fall into place during Trudeau's visit to China [in early September], but nobody's spoken about them in a comprehensive way."

Those "inclinations and instincts" are, on one level, part of a long tradition in Canadian relations with China, one Prof. Evans chronicled in his book Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration, and Strategy in Canadian Policy. Canadian prime ministers from Pierre Trudeau onward have seen their mission in China as being a vaguely defined "engagement" (as opposed to isolation, containment or confrontation). That approach involves not just doing business with the world's most populous country, but doing so in a way that will improve it or deliver it progress.

That rhetoric of engagement was easier to deliver under the previous Liberal administrations of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, who faced a liberalizing Beijing that claimed to be moving, and often seemed to be moving, rapidly toward international standards of human rights and democracy.

Stephen Harper began his decade of Conservative government by taking a more idealistic approach, attempting to confront China and denouncing its regime's humanitarian abuses. After facing the economic consequences of that stance and dire warnings from Canadian industry, he reverted to the traditional Canadian voice of engagement, hobbled by the chilly relations provoked by his earlier stance.

Justin Trudeau's big picture on China appears to fall into the Canadian tradition of engagement – but more boldly, and under rather different circumstances.

On one hand, President Xi Jinping has shifted China in a more top-heavy, Communist Party-led, centralized regime that has less tolerance for political dissent and a free press. While some China experts feel that he has a longer-term vision of a more democratic China, for the moment it's much more difficult for Canadian leaders to talk optimistically about using their influence to change China for the better.

On the other hand, Mr. Xi has made China far more economically open and diverse over the past four years, shifting the economy away from state-owned enterprises and banks and embracing private business and finance, stock exchanges and an economic model based on middle-class consumerism rather than simply low-cost exports. This has caused an explosion of investment and capital into the wider world from China, whose businesses have been snapping up Western companies (including the Canadian oil company Nexen).

And the weakness and crises provoked at home by this new model – a distrusted stock exchange, a more volatile Chinese currency – have led millions of well-off Chinese to send their savings and investments abroad, causing a rush of funds into Canadian banks, Vancouver real estate and other vehicles.

A Bank of Canada research report in April predicted that these investment and capital flows are likely to grow much larger. It's a shift of Chinese money into Canada that the bank's analysts said could stabilize both countries' economies, but means that Canada will have a very large and unmanageable economic relationship with Beijing whether it wants it or not.

Mr. Trudeau is evidently attempting to straddle these twin challenges.

Some informed observers believe that he is seeking nothing more than economic advantage for Canada, and the "engagement" language is simply a political veneer.

"From Mr. Trudeau's point of view, he wants to get the prosperity out of a rising China, he sees it as inevitable to Canada's future, and therefore he's trying to satisfy Canadians' concerns over human rights and environment, but this seems to be mostly superficial and lacking in substance," says Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat in China based at Brock University. "What the real substance is, is 'let's get the free trade going and see our economic bottom line show signs of improvement' – preferably before the next election."

But others feel that the Trudeau stance is less coldly realistic than that. His deals are an attempt to draw China into formal institutions and international engagements to reduce its most ad hoc and arbitrary ways. An extradition treaty, in this view, would acknowledge that Beijing is seeking to take back what it sees as miscreants, but force it to go through a formal process rather than simply send secret agents over.

"This 'rule-of-law' argument is the cornerstone of what I think they wish to try," Prof. Evans says. "If you get a 30-per-cent improvement in Chinese behaviour because you have a treaty – it doesn't always work – it's a kind of hunch or bet that China can be nudged in a better direction. The argument is that it's better to have an agreement and be able to use that as your lever than simply to shout and denounce."

If that is indeed the strategy, it is a long bet on the influence of a mid-sized country that China could just as easily ignore. Whether Mr. Trudeau is motivated by this or by pure economic opportunism, it's a long-term plan that will involve plenty more cringe-inducing moments.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe