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Wenran Jiang, Mactaggart Research Chair at the University of Alberta’s China Institute and a senior fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada
Wenran Jiang, Mactaggart Research Chair at the University of Alberta’s China Institute and a senior fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

Wenran Jiang

Canada-China ties: warm past, cloudy future Add to ...

This week, Canada and China celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Envoys, academics and the business community have gathered in both Ottawa and Beijing to reflect on the past, evaluate the present and speculate about the future of Canadian-Chinese relations.

Four decades ago, when Pierre Trudeau decided to recognize the People's Republic of China, Canada was among the first of very few Western countries to establish ties with Beijing. At the time, China had just passed through the worst stage of the turbulent Cultural Revolution, with most institutions paralyzed and the country almost totally isolated from the rest of the world.

A military clash on the Sino-Soviet border in 1969 raised the danger of a potential Soviet nuclear strike against China. As a teenager in the first year of junior high, I spent more time digging underground anti-nuclear shelters in the northeastern city of Harbin than studying in the classroom. The Chinese people were told the country was under siege, encircled by "Western imperialism" led by the United States and "socialist imperialism" led by the Soviet Union.

But the opening of Canada to China in 1970, followed by the admission of the People's Republic into the United Nations in 1971 and the visits to Beijing by U.S. president Richard Nixon and Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka in 1972, marked the beginning of a long journey that China has since travelled in opening itself up to the outside world.

Today, China is the world's second-largest economy, the No. 1 exporter of manufactured goods and the largest foreign-reserve holder. Boasting a close to 10-per-cent annual growth rate in the past three decades, China has doubled its economy every seven or eight years, lifted several hundred million people out of acute poverty and become a global power indispensable for solving key global issues.

Canada should be very proud of playing a positive role in China's integration into the world community. From exporting wheat to China during its starvation period in the early 1960s, to implementing large-scale CIDA aid programs since the 1970s, to establishing the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in the 1980s, to setting the four-pillar China policy (economic partnership; sustainable development; human rights, good governance and rule of law; and peace and security) in the 1990s, to accepting large numbers of Chinese immigrants in recent years, Canada has contributed substantially to China's prosperity and progress.

Yet, Ottawa seems to have lost that forward-looking vision in its China policy. During the first three years of the Harper government, Canada removed China from its foreign policy priority list. Ideology, partisan bias and a lack of foreign policy expertise in general and in China in particular dominated Canada's approach.

The suspension of summit diplomacy with Beijing, the naive idea that Canada could maintain "warm" economic ties with China while keeping a "cold" political relationship, and the absence of any China policy initiatives cost Canada both economically and politically. It's been only from early 2009 that the Harper government has begun to re-engage with China and gradually bring bilateral relations to the 2005 level.

But on the 40th birthday of their bilateral diplomatic relationship, Ottawa must do more than just bring its ties with Beijing back to normal. It needs a clear vision of engagement. Why now?

China is vital to Canada's economic well-being. As China continues to expand its economy, it has become our second-largest trading partner. Although holding only 6 per cent of our annual trade, far behind that of the U.S. at more than 70 per cent, the growth potential is enormous.

With all its achievements, China still faces multiple challenges: the widening gap between rich and poor that threatens social stability; the neglect of, and damage to, the environment due to an obsessive pursuit of growth; the lack of political reform, freedom of expression and respect for human rights; and the daunting task of repairing its broken social welfare networks.

China is key to managing a range of global issues, from the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, to the reform of the world's financial system that reflects emerging economies such as those of China, India, Brazil and South Africa, to international security issues in the Asia Pacific and beyond, and to the need for a global strategy in combatting global warming.

Canada's engagement in these areas will benefit itself, the future development of China and the well-being of the world community.

Wenran Jiang is the Mactaggart Research Chair at the University of Alberta's China Institute and a senior fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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