Charles Burton is an associate professor of Political Science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and is a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing
For two-and-a-half hours Saturday night, 19 of the world’s most powerful men (10 American, nine for China), fuelled by superb Argentinian sirloin and Malbec, got down to negotiating relations between two nations that generate more than half of all global economic growth.
The focus was two strongman leaders, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, seeking to maximize their own strategic interests and defend the honour of their nations. Neither wanted look weak by too much compromise, but they were also desperate to avoid future political blame if the meeting caused a breakdown in relations, spurring downturn in their economies.
The outcome of this mano a mano has enormous implications for middle powers like Canada, and makes ever clearer that the liberal internationalist institutions we look to for fairness or stability – the United Nations, World Trade Organziations, Group of Seven and Group of 20 – are becoming irrelevant and incapable of upholding any rules-based global order, because the two superpowers are blatantly dismissive of them.
When the supper summit was over, both sides claimed victory, but Mr. Trump achieved optics of momentum by granting China’s plea for an extra 90 days to satisfy Washington’s 142 demands for major changes regarding technology transfer, intellectual property protection, non-tariff barriers, cyber intrusions and cyber theft, and more. The White House remained categorical that if Beijing cannot satisfy these points by March, it will hike tariffs on US$200-billion of Chinese imports from the current 10 per cent to a crippling 25 per cent, and maybe apply it to another US$267-billion in products.
China agreed to start addressing its huge trade surplus by increasing imports of U.S. soybeans, natural gas and other products; to take steps to stem the flow of fentanyl to the United States; and reverse its decision to reject Qualcomm’s US$44-billion bid for the purchase of NXP Semiconductors. But these gestures are unlikely to amount to anything substantive.
Vainglorious as ever, Mr. Trump pronounced, “this was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the United States and China.” But just last month, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, speaking for his boss, made it clear that tariffs are not just about tearing down obstacles to the Chinese market, ending rampant intellectual property theft and stop China from coercing technology transfer from U.S. companies by threatening to block their access to China. Washington also wants China to stop interfering with navigation in international waters of the South China Sea, respect UN and WTO rules including compliance with sanctions on North Korea, and stop interfering in the politics of Western nations.
So there is a long way for China to go, and it is unlikely that there will be resolution by early March, 2019 as currently envisaged. The prospect of a new cold war that could cause serious global economic disruption by 2020 appears stronger than ever.
In years to come, the dinner may be seen as a signal event in the emergence of a new realist world order, characterized by unilateral negotiations based on individual state power interests. These interests overwhelm the institutions of rules-based order, which had emerged from the ashes of the Second World War.
This does not bode well for nations like Canada. Ottawa’s failure to have China stave the flow of fentanyl into Canada, juxtaposed with Canada’s postured outrage to get U.S. tariffs lifted from our steel and aluminum exports, are from an obsolete playbook. Earnest Canadian appeals to trust, goodwill and friendship don’t work with Mr. Xi or Mr. Trump, neither of whom has much time for our Prime Minister these days.
Canada taking the lead in forming institutional alliances of like-minded middle powers to defend political, social, economic and human rights is principled, but in the new global context is unlikely to generate much more than our current proclivity to fruitless high-minded rhetorical expositions. Canada has to abandon delusions that we somehow punch above our global weight in international affairs because we have a good moral reputation as a well-meaning global fixer.
To regain global respect, we need a harder-nosed and more clearly articulated expression of Canada’s national interests. Putting Chinese officials who violate the human rights of incarcerated Uyghurs and other political prisoners on the Magnitsky list, and a much more vigorous military defence of our Arctic sovereignty, would be two good places to start.