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Editorials Globe editorial: Why Canada’s relationship with China cannot rival our friendship with the United States

When John McCallum got himself in trouble last week by making inappropriate comments about the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, it wasn’t the first time he put his foot in it.

A year ago, Mr. McCallum made the news for saying that “the policies of the government of Canada are closer to the policies of the government of China than they are to U.S. policies" under U.S. President Donald Trump.

He listed “the environment, global warming, free trade [and] globalization” as specific points of friction with Washington and of alleged agreement with Beijing. While it was true that these were areas in which the new President was proving to be less than co-operative with the Trudeau government, his message was an odd endorsement of a one-party police state with no time for the rule of law.

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Was the United States no longer Canada’s best friend and ally, just because the President was playing hardball on renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement?

Of course not. Mr. McCallum had to walk back his remarks. That’s better than what he had to do last week, which was to apologize for saying that Ms. Meng has a solid case against the U.S. extradition request that is keeping her under house arrest in Vancouver, and then submit his resignation to the Prime Minister.

Mr. McCallum’s firing is dramatic, but his bookending gaffes serve to highlight the important lesson learned from the Meng affair: that the shared values of Canada and the United States – democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, separation of powers – cannot be forgotten, even when one duly elected American president sometimes acts like he no longer recognizes them.

Over the course of his mandate, Mr. Trump has insulted Canada, lied about our trading relationship, belittled the Prime Minister, imposed unjustified tariffs and sometimes acted as though this country holds no more importance to the United States than Belgium.

It has been frustrating. But it’s nothing compared to how China has treated Canada in its anger over the arrest of Ms. Meng.

Beijing has arbitrarily detained two Canadians and subjected them to torture, and arbitrarily sentenced to death a Canadian man who was serving a 15-year drug-trafficking sentence in a Chinese jail. It has shown a condescending disdain for Canada’s obligations under the law, and it has insulted our country by accusing it of white supremacy – a feeble charge coming from a regime that has put almost one-million Chinese Muslims in “re-education camps."

Mr. Trump’s trade hostilities may well have prompted Ottawa to question its ties to the United States and to flirt with China in order to strengthen its hand. That might sometimes prove a useful short-run tactic, but it’s not much of a long-term strategy. Mr. Trump, for all of his unpleasantness, has only revealed what kind of President he is. Beijing, on the other hand, has shown what kind of regime it is.

There is a difference. The United States is a nation of laws and democracy, with a separation of powers that makes it impossible for one man and his party to rule autocratically. Just last week, Mr. Trump had to cave to political and public pressure and temporarily end his ill-conceived shutdown of the government. He is heavily constrained by the other branches of government, the constitution and regular elections. He is being investigated by a special prosecutor and may yet be indicted or impeached.

In China, Xi Jinping is President-for-life. He heads a one-party state, where there are no elections, no opposition and no free speech. Political alternatives are illegal; discussion of them is punishable by imprisonment, or worse.

Yes, China is an important market for Canadian exporters, and its economy is the world’s second largest. Overnight, it has become a superpower; it cannot be ignored. Ottawa needs to seek a stable working relationship with Beijing.

But we must never forget that China has literally kidnapped two Canadians and is using their lives as bargaining chips. Can anyone imagine the United States doing the same?

Geography has put Canada next to the United States, but that relationship – like Canada’s relationship with other democratic and liberal allies in Europe, Asia and around the world – is built on a deeper foundation. Even in the era of Mr. Trump, we should not lose sight of who our friends are, and where our interests lie.

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