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editorial

In 2018, we described the government as suffering from China 'delusions.' We said the failure of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen here on Feb. 26, 2020, to kick start free-trade talks with China in 2017 was a 'blessing in disguise.'Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Last week, we learned that our longstanding criticism of the Trudeau government’s approach to dealing with China is now shared by none other than the Trudeau government – or at least by the members of the civil service charged with advising it.

Late last year, officials at Global Affairs prepared a briefing note on “how to approach relations with China.” The analysis of the relationship with the world’s second superpower was made public last week by the House of Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations. (The committee is one of the blessings of a minority Parliament.)

After years of seeing China as a land of rainbows and dollar signs, the government is no longer receiving advice from Fantasy Island. China’s retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, involving economic punishment and hostage-taking, has left Ottawa with no choice but to wise up.

“While Canada has long framed its China policy through the lens of economic opportunity,” says the briefing note, “it now needs to take account of Beijing’s long-term strategic challenge to Canadian interests and values.”

Indeed. This is welcome advice. It’s what we’ve been saying since the Trudeau government came to office.

In 2018, we described the government as suffering from China “delusions." We said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s failure to kick start free-trade talks with China in 2017 was a “blessing in disguise.”

That same year, we asked whether the government’s view of China was “as naive as it appears.”

“Does it get,” we wrote more than two years ago, “that China is not just an economic opportunity, but also a threat to the world order this country helped build, and under which we have long prospered? China is cast as the glittering business case at the top of every Davos PowerPoint presentation and the pot of gold at the end of every Team Canada trade mission rainbow, but the reality is a bit more complicated.”

The challenge stems from the fact that the People’s Republic of China is not a democratic regime. It doesn’t believe in elections, the rule of law or human rights.

Or, as the briefing note puts it: “The PRC promotes perspectives of governance, economic security and human rights that diverge in fundamental ways from Canada’s.”

What about the dream of a reaching a free-trade agreement (FTA) with China, and doing so quickly, so as to gain economic advantage over our trading partners? The “Because It’s 2015” Trudeau government was all over that. The 2020 version, not so much.

“Exploratory discussions on a potential FTA with China suggest that achieving satisfactory outcomes in all areas of interest to Canada would be challenging,” concludes the brief. What’s more, “FTA negotiations are off the table for many like-minded partners, some of whom see pressure at the [World Trade Organization] as the best means of securing rules-based trade with China.”

Correct. A deal signed by many nations offers some hope of achieving “rules-based trade” with China. A bilateral deal, in contrast, is almost certain to be a losing proposition. Against a smaller partner, China will follow or ignore the letter of an agreement at its whim. Canada simply doesn’t have the weight to compel China to stick to terms, as was demonstrated when, in the wake of Ms. Meng’s arrest, Beijing lashed out at the Canadian economy and Canadian citizens.

To have a chance to come out winners, or at least not losers, in dealing with China, we need allies, and not just on trade. As the bureaucrats put it in their note, “As the PRC continues to bolster its assertive foreign policy demeanour, Canada must promote and defend its values in close partnership with like-minded allies and coalitions.”

However, Beijing knows how to play divide-and-conquer. “China has made a practice, especially in Asia, of driving wedges between the United States and its allies to mitigate its potential ‘containment,’” says the briefing note. “China has deployed variations of this strategy – wielding restrictions on market access and severing diplomatic engagement – against the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Norway and Sweden, among others.”

For more than a year, it has been doing likewise with Canada. That has been painful and costly. But in the long run, by forcing Ottawa to confront the reality of what the government of China is and how it operates, Beijing has done Canadians a favour.