Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of a meeting in Beijing in August.

Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump has vowed dramatic change to the U.S. position on the world stage, threatening new antagonism with China even as he pledges to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that promised to drive down tariffs and impose a Western order around the Pacific rim.

It is a moment of upheaval, trade enthusiasts say, that Canada should seize by abandoning its qualms and embracing China in a way it has never done, as Beijing positions itself for a more prominent position of global leadership.

"The whole world is wondering what Mr. Trump is going to look like," in terms of the policies and priorities he will pursue, said Derek Burney, former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney and ex-ambassador to the United States. "Well, we don't have to wait. We could be moving right now to forge a closer relationship with China."

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: China takes off gloves over Taiwan, warns U.S. it would retaliate

For subscribers: Donald Trump ushers in a new style of Washington politics

Globe editorial: Is Ottawa playing into China's hands, or vice versa? It's hard to tell

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already sought warmer ties with Beijing and, in September, placed Canada on a path toward a free-trade deal with China, with the two sides agreeing to exploratory talks. But that can be a slow process. It took Australia nine years and 21 rounds of negotiations to conclude a free-trade agreement with China.

If the Trudeau government pursues it strongly enough, Mr. Burney believes a Canadian deal can be done in two years, by cribbing from Canada's approach three decades ago in negotiating the 1987 free-trade agreement with the U.S. – an approach that included a special cabinet committee dedicated to concluding a deal.

Critics say Canada should take Mr. Trump's rise as a cautionary tale about the dangers of forging ahead with international deals that can damage local communities.

But Mr. Trump's election has suddenly thrown into question the long-established leadership role of the U.S. in trade and other matters, creating an opening for China to gain new influence in keeping global goods moving – a possibility the country has embraced.

Story continues below advertisement

"We have been compelled to take the lead in the economic globalization effort," Fang Xinghai, vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, added at a Caixin Media summit earlier this month. "If we don't, China's interests will be hurt tremendously."

China has already claimed renewed interest in its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a less-ambitious regional trade deal that it leads, and local experts say it is prepared to take a larger role elsewhere, too.

"The globalization infrastructure like the World Bank, IMF or WTO, G7 or G20 – they should all be maintained and sustained and also improved," said Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalization, a Chinese think tank.

If the U.S. "has backed off, we have to have other countries to support those systems." Otherwise, he says, "the world will fall apart."

Canada, of course, need not only look to Beijing. A largely completed free-trade deal with Japan is gathering dust. Ottawa could use the language of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr. Trump wants to toss out, as the basis to speed talks with Southeast Asian nations.

And critics point to Mr. Trump's rise – and the surge of nationalism that propelled the Brexit vote in Britain and rising populist movements across the world – as new reason to question exuberance for trade. Canada "is arguably better off without" the TPP, said Scott Sinclair, a senior research fellow with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Story continues below advertisement

New scholarship adds grounds for skepticism. In "The China shock," a recent academic article, an international team of researchers showed that the extraordinary rise of Chinese exports since 2001 eradicated millions of U.S. jobs with only "extremely modest offsetting employment." In other words, they found, after the decade of frenzied trade that followed China's accession to the World Trade Organization, "U.S. net welfare gains are close to zero."

It suggests the need for "a more balanced view about the benefits and pitfalls of free trade," said Victor Shih, a China scholar at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

Another point of caution lies in China today, which has pushed a plan called Made in China 2025 to massively grow domestic capacity in robots, aeronautical equipment, rail and advanced medical products, among others – some of which overlap with Canada's areas of expertise.

"It may not make so much sense to rush headlong into lowering trade barriers with China, because across a large number of sectors the Chinese government is heavily subsidizing industrial goods producers," Prof. Shih said.

"Politicians and voters really have to think about this carefully."

Canada has tensions to resolve with China, too, including around the steel industry. "Trade dumping. This is a serious issue in Canada," said NDP international trade critic Tracey Ramsey. "Any trade deal that we're going to enter, we need to take our time."

Story continues below advertisement

There are other realities, as well. If Mr. Trump also makes good on his promise to re-examine NAFTA, Canada's trade negotiators may be consumed by keeping trucks moving to the U.S.

But it's important for Ottawa to maintain close ties with Beijing, so it can remain "the voice of reason," said Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada's recently retired ambassador to China – particularly if the U.S. under Mr. Trump shies from calling on China to uphold international standards of conduct.

"Otherwise," Mr. Saint-Jacques said, "the Chinese will think they have free rein and can do what they want."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
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

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies