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How much interdependence is possible in today's world? What form will it take? How stable will the way forward be?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the political strategist who advised U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, has said that the world is still making the transition from the Cold War to an international order that continues to rest on the decisive axis of two great powers but is more complex.

The great powers today, of course, are the United States and China, but two significant realities distinguish their competition from that of the West and the Soviet Union: Neither party is excessively ideological, and both recognize that they have to get along – they really need to master mutual accommodation.

In the coming years, the big economic challenge facing China and the big political one facing the Americans will test this view – but Canada has some special qualifications that could make it an important player.

Canadians can bring to the discussion both their own capacity for mutual accommodation and the unique relationships they enjoy with the global powers. The connection with the U.S. is a special people-to-people bond much celebrated during the Prime Minister's recent visit to Washington. It is beyond the reach of government.

But Canada also has an edge with China, for several reasons:

  • Canadian Norman Bethune brought modern medicine to rural China and made such an impression that Chairman Mao wrote a eulogy for him that Chinese students were required to know by heart for decades.
  • Northrop Frye, the great Canadian cultural critic, got more serious attention in China than perhaps any other (non-communist) Western thinker.
  • In 1958, the Royal Bank of Canada was the first Western financial institution to open in the People’s Republic.
  • A year later, The Globe and Mail became one of the first Western news outlets with a base there.
  • In the early 1960s, Canada sold China wheat it needed badly and could find nowhere else.
  • In October, 1970, Pierre Trudeau made Canada one of the first Western countries to officially recognize Beijing.

And China does not soon forget a favour. When President Xi Jinping met Justin Trudeau after last fall's election he produced a photograph of the new Prime Minister's parents. It was taken 43 years ago when Mr. Trudeau's father was making his third visit to China – but the first by a sitting Canadian prime minister.

As well, both China and the United States appreciate its natural resources, so Canada has a lot going for it right now; the mainland's most popular foreign TV personality is even a Canadian – Mark Rowswell, the comedian and on-air host better known as Dashan.

But we must be sure to make use of this clout, and to stand back and feel confident in who we are. We have – in fact, the West as a whole has – no choice but to take risks with China, but we must do so with open eyes. Remember what happened when the world failed to find a way to accommodate an ascendant Germany. By the same token, China would be wise to remember that the U.S. can be slow to act, but brings a lot to bear when it does.

A troubled People's Republic

And China has issues. David Mulroney, who was Canada's ambassador to Beijing (2009 to 2012), sees many pressing problems: the unpredictable behaviour of neighbouring North Korea; pollution; uneven development across society; corrosive public criticism of education and health care; concerns about corruption; and uncertainty generated by the Taiwanese and U.S. elections.

The overarching question, Mr. Mulroney says, is President Xi's "vision problem"– his belief that "what's good for the Communist Party is good for China."

At the same time, China has many big positives. The late Deng Xiaoping set his country on the road to economic advancement in 1978, when he made his historic "speech for change." The subsequent speed, scope and scale of the transformation, and the number of people who have benefited, are without precedent.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, which reformed its politics without reforming its economy, China made the practical political choice to improve economic conditions in ways that would be felt quickly by individuals. It avoided the swamps of Western-style democratic politics, in which neither China's leaders nor the public had any experience. As in the United States right now, the economic results are better than the political.

Success through co-operation

Although China and the United States have many shortcomings, they should be seen in the larger context of astonishing achievement and resilience. The task for both countries – one they are up to but may not want to tackle – is to use their strength to co-operate in making an interdependent world work for each of them.

And the challenge for Canada? Find how best to be useful.

Since the Second World War, the external leadership provided by the United States has been unprecedented. There is still no credible or acceptable alternate global order on offer.

But the Chinese achievement at home is no less impressive. In 2010, while in China for a week, I asked myself what I would do if trying to bring 1.4 billon people, peaceably and at high speed, through two centuries of the Industrial Revolution and three or more decades of globalization.

What China has done since 1979 reveals amazing strength. Its accomplishment may seem imperfect to Westerners, who took centuries to get where they are today, so some mind-boggling numbers may help our perspective. In 1989, a decade after Deng Xiaoping had launched his economic reforms, China's per capita gross domestic product was still a mere $403, but by 2014 it had topped $7,000. In 1940, average life expectancy was 36 years, and the literacy rate was 20 per cent. By 2012, people were living to 75, and literacy was over 90 per cent.

This rise is unique in human history – but as huge as China's accomplishment has been, so too is what remains to be done, at home and abroad. Beijing painted itself into a corner by relying excessively on the global system to propel the scale and pace of its development. It must now move beyond these dependencies into more interdependent ways.

Similarly, the United States hobbled itself by the scale of its debt, the weakness of its financial system and the unpreparedness of its voters and its political system to address the inevitable fallout as it withdrew from its international overreach. So, just as China is finding its new economic path harder, the U.S. is experiencing political turmoil.

China needs to understand that American workers carried part of its great leap forward on their backs, and this is part of what is now playing out in U.S. politics.

Deciding factors

Certain impressions still resonate from my trip to China: memory, hope and energy, alongside overwhelming size and speed. All five will determine the success or failure of China's unprecedented experiment of modernization and participation in the global order. It is impossible to see China whole ever, let alone in a week (or the United States, for that matter). But seven days there was time enough to raise one simple question: Can China become an ongoing positive participant in an evolving inclusive global economic order?

Since then, a second question has arisen: Can the United States hang in, or will its internal turmoil lead it to withdraw, leaving the rest of the world more than it can handle? In the last few years, the overall U.S. economy has done well, but the domestic political fallout of the last 25 years has become very challenging.

Meanwhile, many outsiders have believed there is no end to the demands that can be placed on the United States. But that era is over – as are the days of the Chinese economy as the great resource and consumer market of the future, as well as the provider of cost-effective outsourcing for the world's suppliers.

The fact that China has vivid memories of the Mao era's extremes (and a deep-seated desire not to return to them) may give its leaders the latitude they need to maintain cohesion. (The U.S. has no recent memory of such extremes to constrain it.)

Hope is less a fundamental for China's current generation than for its children. Like memory, hope stands to last another one or two decades as a source of stability through huge change. These powerful feelings should result in needed patience and realistic expectations. They do not, however, guarantee Chinese political will for needed change.

And then there is energy. The sheer power of the China numbers could yet overwhelm its own positive socio-cultural driving forces and the ability of the global economy to handle them. The math of huge numbers and compressed time frames will continue to test both Chinese capabilities and those of the global economic order.

No impending implosion

Not long ago, I listened to Mr. Mulroney deliver the annual Bishop White Lecture (which honours the first curator of the Royal Ontario Museum's Chinese collections). He acknowledges China's strengths and achievements and the positive changes within the Communist Party that emerged following the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He sees a party that has been immensely adaptive but not yet ready to relinquish office. He expects no early Chinese implosion – if ever. Good. If there were such an implosion, it would make the current Middle East mess look minor.

We have to hope that the continued Chinese acceptance of Communist Party rule in exchange for economic prosperity will not become prematurely inadequate politically through some combination of mediocre economic performance and a desire among the younger Chinese for something more than full stomachs. The West should stay out of this difficult challenge on the domestic front, while not letting China forgo its fair role in preserving the global order.

Canada needs them to succeed

Canada played a special role in the global order that emerged in the late 1940s. It should do so again by helping to shape a more sustainable global economic order. Ottawa has in the Bank of Canada and the Departments of Finance and Foreign Affairs a group of officials not surpassed for independence, innovative analysis, broad experience, and an ability to work with others to help achieve this new world.

For a decade, Canada lacked responsive political leadership because the former prime minister found it difficult to get along with the two countries most important to Canada and to the world. The new government in Ottawa has a role. Canada needs a sustainable global order. It also needs both the United States and China to succeed. The United States is our most important customer by far. China may no longer drive the demand in the important resources sector, but it is still a significant factor. China's population numbers and multiple strengths mean it will matter, regardless of what happens.

Can China and the United States find the capacity for needed mutual accommodation?

If you doubt interdependence is the challenge of our time, think again. Take a hard look at the surge in blue-collar support for Donald Trump. Overwhelmingly, it is about trade which, in turn, means China. I was part of a small group of senior Canadian businessmen who took that message to Shanghai in 2010. We were five years early.

William A. Macdonald has an extensive record of public service. To spark discussion of the nation's future, the Toronto-based president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., and his associate, William R.K. Innes, have created The Canadian Narrative Project, with the help of Trent University. To see more, visit


Recommended reading

Three recent books on China stand out:

Partners and Rivals: The Uneasy Future of China's Relationship with the United States by Wendy Dobson (University of Toronto Press, 2013)

Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know About China in the 21st Century by David Mulroney (Allan Lane, 2015)

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (Raincoast, 2014)

- William A. Macdonald

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