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Canadians don't know how lucky we've been. Through our 150 years of history, the world order has been led by countries, first the United Kingdom and then the United States, with which we share not just the English language, but more importantly the language of democracy, human rights and law.

As long as there's been a Canada, the leading superpower has been on the same team: liberal, democratic and law-based. Yes, Canada has had disagreements with the U.S., from Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq, and from softwood lumber to Keystone XL, but these have played out on a foundation of largely shared values. Getting along with the neighbours has been easy because their beliefs so closely reflect ours, and vice versa.

Like the fish that never notices the omnipresent water, we rarely think about this liberal ocean we're swimming in. It's always just been there, and surely it always will be. Right?

But the liberal world in which a liberal Canada has thrived faces growing, illiberal challenges. Top of mind are the Trump administration in Washington, and the Putin regime in Russia. But President Donald Trump is constrained by a constitution, Congress, an independent judiciary and the electorate. And Vladimir Putin leads a country smaller and weaker than the old Soviet Union.

However, there's a bigger challenger to the world that Canada has prospered in, and it's unlike any before. It's a mix of opportunity and threat, a new superpower that is both joining the world and promising to transform it in ways that may not be to our liking. That country is China.

The Trudeau government wants closer relations with Beijing, and it's not hard to understand why. China has quickly become the world's second-largest economy, and could soon be the largest. But even as China's wealth grows, the regime remains insistently stunted in other ways.

The Communist Party that runs Beijing is at the centre of our economic system – look at the country of origin labels on everything from clothes to car parts to consumer electronics. But the People's Republic is an outlier when it comes to our values. Democracy? Non-existent. Free speech? Limited. Free trade? Beijing's embrace is highly selective. Rule of law? No.

Nevertheless, China is not a pariah state, and we shouldn't want it to be. The Soviet Union tried to run a separate economic system, along with a separate, non-democratic political system. China is different. Even while remaining a dictatorship outside the Western democratic tradition, it has moved to the centre of the Western-built, post-Second World War economic order.

That means Canada has no choice but to deal with China. And all else equal, Canada has every reason to want good relations. The question is what we'll be asked to give up and sell out in order to get it, and whether we should ever pay such a price.

Beijing wants a free-trade deal with Canada. It wants a wide opening of the Canadian economy to Chinese investment. And it wants an extradition treaty, ostensibly so it can more easily pursue corrupt Chinese officials.

The Trudeau government has been receptive, at times enthusiastically so. Critics have rightly been ringing alarm bells.

On free trade, Ottawa and Beijing are conducting exploratory talks. More Chinese investment is also being courted: Last month, the Trudeau government reversed a Harper-era decision blocking a Chinese company from taking over a Montreal-based fibre-optics firm. And China has pushed Canada to agree to an extradition treaty, even as Australia last week sank its own deal with Beijing.

As the smaller party in any negotiation, the traditional Canadian strategy has been to aim for multilateral talks. It's why a Canada-China free trade and investment agreement is so fraught, and why Canada would be better served by a deal involving China, Canada and many other countries. The Trudeau government should be trying to steer the conversation in that direction. China's neighbours share these concerns.

Ottawa also has to shake itself out of the decades-old Team Canada trade mission mentality. China has long been seen as a kind of magical pot of export gold; once upon a time we were going to get rich selling trains, planes and farm machinery; now Chinese demand is sure to make Canada a world leader in the export of clean-energy technology.

Get serious. That Canadian politicians want to be seen cutting ribbons and signing contracts is understandable. But the chief economic benefit of free trade with China has been the low-priced goods Canada has been able to import. With or without a free-trade deal, that will continue.

And when it comes to an extradition treaty with China, Canada has every reason to say no. Or if Ottawa fears that would be too undiplomatic, then let talks quietly drag on, while never actually arriving at an agreement.

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