Skip to main content

Derek H. Burney was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.

With a prime ministerial visit to China scheduled for the fall, it is time for Canada to establish a bolder, more coherent strategy on China – the country destined to play an increasingly important, albeit in many ways uncertain, role in shaping global events.

Of late, the bilateral track record has been checkered. Trade numbers are lopsidedly in China's favour; we import more than double what we export. Investment flows are stagnant. Sporadic attempts to raise the profile through Canadian ministerial and provincial visits to China have rarely delivered much of substance and have seldom been reciprocated by high-level Chinese visits to Canada. The Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA), negotiated more than two years ago, remains unratified by Parliament. The Economic Complementarities study, initiated during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2010 visit to China and released two years ago this month, had been intended to kickstart a broad-gauged trade negotiation. Instead it has languished on the shelf.

Recent high-level, public denunciations of alleged Chinese hacking at the National Research Council, and the apparent tit-for-tat apprehension of two Canadian missionaries in northern China, send unsettling signals across the board and show little sign of astute diplomacy by either side. One wonders, too, why the erstwhile repository of advanced technology in Canada should be so vulnerable to hacking of any kind. Strong public scolding without concrete remedial action is not the most effective cure for any problem. As for the missionaries, their coffee shop enterprise and modest humanitarian efforts hardly smack of espionage.

Hacking of commercial or security intelligence is a serious offence but also a fact of life in today's world. It has been estimated that China accounts for 40 per cent of the millions of attacks occurring daily, most of which target the United States. But China is also on the receiving end of many attacks. As the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies recently reported, "Cybercrime is a growth industry … the likely annual cost to the global economy from cybercrime is more than $400-billion." Even so, there are better ways to contain and frustrate such activity other than blunt accusations that escalate tensions and prompt retaliation.

A good start would be to notify China, through diplomatic channels, of the evidence we have and demand answers. We should also vigorously upgrade internal controls and monitoring mechanisms to preserve and protect our own critical assets. We need to work closely with key allies to tackle abuse through tighter international co-ordination while giving our respective law-enforcement agencies the right tools to tackle cybercrime.

As the world's second-largest economic power, which many believe will soon overpass the U.S., China should also be engaged more pragmatically in areas that will serve Canadian interests. Neither fundamental differences over values nor squabbles over alleged security breaches should preclude constructive engagement where opportunities offer mutual benefit.

We need to be realistic about what we can achieve but, by seeking a more productive bilateral relationship with China, Canada does not have to cede or compromise the values of our own society. Diplomacy is not a "zero sum" game.

The choice of political systems is ultimately a matter for the Chinese people themselves. President Xi Jinping has his own serious challenges on the home front, not least the endemic corruption that is the inevitable by-product of a totalitarian, political system. The recent arrest of China's top security official on charges of corruption will certainly exacerbate tensions within the hierarchy of the ruling Communist Party.

Canada could take a leaf from the playbook of Australia and New Zealand and chart a strategic path that engages the Chinese in negotiations aimed at bolstering trade and investment relations, recognizing that many of Canada's economic strengths – resources, agricultural and energy in particular, services and some technologies – match Chinese needs. Initiating negotiations with China would also complement and strengthen our objectives with Japan and in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Above all, we need to calibrate our interests and our capacity for influence with a healthy dose of realism on both. We should orchestrate some quiet but firm diplomacy to resolve current irritants. As for rhetoric, the Prime Minister would be well-advised to articulate soon precisely what Canada wants from China and why – in short, how he intends to play the China card – and embolden his team to deliver.