Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
With the appointment of the all-party parliamentary committee, our China relationship may get the attention it deserves. Our security and economic well-being depend on an astute understanding of the wider world and, after the U.S., that means China.
The committee’s effectiveness depends on its members: Can the Tories resist demonizing China? Can the Liberals get over their opposition to the committee – welcome to minority government – and avoid wishful thinking on China?
The committee should look at three broad baskets: trade and investment; people connections including human rights; security and defence. It also needs to ask: Is our quiet diplomacy working? The committee hearings will inform a public increasingly feeling chilly on China.
China is our second largest trading partner. When Hong Kong is included, China constitutes our sixth largest source of foreign investment. Chinese-made products are integral to our digital lives. China is a primary market for our farmers. As Wendy Dobson argues in Living with China, we need a forward-looking policy acknowledging China’s state capitalism and the challenges around intellectual property and state-owned enterprises. We cannot do it ourselves, so we must work with our Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development partners in pressing for Chinese adherence to standards such as those in our new Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Family ties should be an asset with Chinese migrants now our third-largest source of new citizens. More than 1.8 million Canadians claim Chinese descent. Mandarin and Cantonese are our most spoken languages after English and French. There are nearly 150,000 Chinese students studying in Canada. Chinese-sponsored Confucius Institutes work with our schools and universities. But as Jonathan Manthorpe’s Claws of the Panda demonstrates, we also need to monitor Chinese United Front activities aimed at subverting our democracy and our citizens.
China is determined to achieve ultimate sea control in the South China Sea through which 80 per cent of global commerce sails. While endorsing engagement with China, former national security adviser Richard Fadden warned in his recent Vimy Award lecture that China is not just an aggressive competitor but a strategic adversary. Neither our defence policy nor the new ministerial mandate letter reflects this despite the implications for our navy and freedom of navigation.
Chinese treatment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor is abominable. Parliamentarians should endorse the proposed Senate resolution applying the Magnitsky sanctions against the responsible Chinese officials.
In seizing our hostages, the Chinese claim to have acted in “self-defence” over our detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. In China’s eyes, Canada is simply a running dog of American imperialism and, in the continuing Sino-American trade war, we are an unfortunate surrogate. The Chinese embargo of our canola and, until recently, our beef and pork demonstrates to others what China can do.
Under Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian direction is not for turning. China, as its leadership sees it, is resuming its rightful place as the dominant Asian power. Through its Belt and Road initiative and its claims to maritime dominance in adjacent waters, it is re-establishing the Middle Kingdom. Stability depends on the Chinese Communist Party. In their narrative, human rights, as with the rule of law, are not international values but for each state to determine.
China and the West are not engaged in a clash of civilizations and we need to avoid this characterization. Ours is a clash of systems: autocracy against democracy. Look to Hong Kong or Taiwan to know which system the Chinese people chose when given a vote. We should be firmly, vocally on the side of the democrats.
For now, let’s use the tools of containment, deterrence and, most of all, engagement. If China curtails official meetings, we’ll continue to utilize Track Two dialogue. As with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the democracies need to act collectively in striving for a peaceful, albeit competitive, co-existence. One goal should be a Helsinki-type accord that includes human rights.
For too long our China policy has swayed between the romantic and the hostile, depending on whether the government is Liberal or Conservative. Its only common thread was a cloak of government secrecy. Inconsistent and opaque policy serves neither our interests nor our values.
If they can park partisanship at the door, the All-Party committee might just achieve a realistic China policy that all can support.
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