Chandran Nair is founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, member of the Club of Rome and author of The Sustainable State: The Future of Government, Economy and Society.
The arrest of Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver and the subsequent detention of two Canadians in China have led to tense relations between the two countries. In Canada, a country that prides itself as welcoming, tolerant and modern, there has been a groundswell of anti-Chinese sentiments and even xenophobia. A diplomatic solution may very well be worked out between the two countries, but some dangerous seeds have been planted and a lot of hard work will need to be done on both sides to repair the relationship.
Important for Canada is how it should think about a future world power and a new world order in a post-Western world.
This has become a complicated question for Western countries to answer in recent years, and the source of much angst as they cling to archaic views rooted in an imperial past. Because China failed to develop along the Western model, it is seen in Western capitals with worry, if not outright fear.
Learning to talk to, work with and learn from China will require a certain humility and respect for a culture that is very different and much older.
From trade and security to resource management and climate, China’s active participation is a requirement on the global stage. Treating co-operation with China as something beyond the pale will mean these issues will never be solved.
Canadians may find this co-operation difficult given that two of its citizens are detained in China and two others sentenced to death in what appears to be retaliation for the arrest of Ms. Meng. It is unlikely that the Chinese will carry out the death sentences. This is the Chinese way of saying to Canada that if you are willing to be pushed by the Americans, we will bite back. It is a test to see whether Canada is truly a sovereign state willing to stop doing what the Chinese see as the “dirty work” of the United States.
We can expect the relationship between China and the United States to get worse. Some Western countries may believe siding with the United States is the best way forward – a move that would draw lines between the two camps more firmly.
This is dangerous and unhelpful. Countries such as Canada need to avoid the temptation and pressure of following along with the United States, which has signalled an inability to cope with the rise of others. For example, the United States’ recent decision to effectively ban Chinese telecommunications company Huawei epitomizes their deep-rooted fear. Another was the statement by a senior official of the State Department, Kiron Skinner, that for the first time the United States is being challenged by a “different civilization” and one that is “not Caucasian.”
Canada needs to understand how China makes decisions, not naively dismiss it as an autocracy. It must also learn to appreciate how its separate model of development has led to real and unmatched success, and why China’s population, by and large, supports the Chinese government.
China is far from perfect, both in its domestic policy and approach to foreign relations. But many countries got used to the idea of asking an imperfect world power for help a long time ago: namely, from the United States.
The United States’ indiscriminate bullying (Canada has recent experience of this), unilateral sanctions using the exorbitant privilege of the dollar and disregard for international agreements mean having China as a counterweight can only be good for the world.
This is not the same as asking Canada to jettison the United States as a partner. But an understanding of and mild deference to American security concerns is not the same as taking a harsh view of all things Chinese.
In plotting a new path in its relations with China, Canada would do well to avoid the pitfalls of other countries in the Anglo-American bloc. Much effort will be required from Canada that on the surface may seem one-sided, but this is necessary in order to maintain important economic ties. After all, the fact is that Canada needs China more than the other way around.
Canada needs to remain open to Chinese businesses and institutions, and encourage Canadians to continue to take an interest in and invest in China. It must also welcome Chinese investments and even cultural exchanges and not treat them with the suspicion.
It also needs to remember that many Chinese call Canada their home and avoid suggesting that this population deserves extra scrutiny. That will only convince many Chinese-Canadians that there really is an unbridgeable divide between their two homes.
Canada can work closely with China in the education arena as the United States restricts Chinese students and scholars. Canada should open its doors to these people.
China is also open to learning new ideas and best practices from abroad. But it is not particularly hungry for lessons from smaller and less-populated countries, even developed ones, about its foreign policy or how it governs.
There will be areas where Canada will disagree with China: economic and regulatory policy, market access and, yes, human rights. But Canada needs to find a way to be a constructive partner. It needs to treat Beijing seriously and respectfully, making the argument why its point of view is worth considering.
Canada must remember that China, and even the Chinese government, is not a monolith. Ottawa’s opinions on one particular area of Chinese policy does not mean casting the whole country in a negative light.
Above all, Canada must remember that China is just as critical a partner to solving the world’s problems as the United States or Europe – if not more so if China’s economy continues to grow. If Canada wants to be a world leader in tackling global issues such as trade, security and climate change, it must learn to work with China, and not fear it.