China's interest in Canada as an investment destination brings into focus the difficult choices that come with engaging a country that is fundamentally unlike ours and whose objectives and policy direction are hard to follow.
For the past 50 years, we have had the luxury of deciding where and how we are going to get involved in the world beyond our safe North American base. Now, with China our second most important trading partner, our prosperity, security and well-being depend on managing this relationship. It will be critical to work harder to understand China, to think carefully about what we want from the relationship and to bring discipline and skill to our engagement.
An increasing number of Canadian jobs are linked to China's rise. While we buy from China far more than we sell to it, China will soon overtake the United Kingdom as our second most important export market. Nearly 30 per cent of Canada's international students come from China, and the number of Canada-bound Chinese tourists is growing rapidly.
Given how different China is, and how hard it is to read, it's not surprising that our national discussion about it swings between two widely divergent views.
China's critics point to the risks, such as threats to intellectual property, predatory behaviour by state-sponsored competitors to Canadian firms, or China's efforts to intervene in how we manage our society (such as their loud objections when we welcome the Dalai Lama in Canada). These critics raise valid questions about building a relationship with a country that so often fails to show respect for the rule of law.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who are dazzled by the awesome growth China has generated in the past 30 years. They are impressed by China's ability to host mega-events (such as the Olympics), and see a glimpse of future global leadership in its high-speed trains and futuristic skylines.
Both arguments contain elements of truth. Far from being monolithic, China is diverse, contradictory, at times chaotic. While the coming leadership transition could deliver change, ushering in a generation with more international experience than any of its predecessors, we need to remember that they, too, are products of a Communist Party system that identifies and grooms talent over decades. They will immediately have to contend with problems such as water shortages and appalling air quality, a rapidly aging population and a wary East Asian neighbourhood.
How do we shape a smart way forward?
There are no shortcuts. We need to spend a lot more time and effort trying to understand China, its language and culture. When I visited different parts of Canada as ambassador, I saw that the availability of Mandarin language training depends on the energy and foresight of individual school boards. We need to identify best practices in language training and promote them across the country.
We also need to ensure that the Chinese understand us. I was struck by how often otherwise informed and experienced Chinese interlocutors misinterpreted seemingly clear signals from the Canadian side. The Americans and Europeans use formal dialogue to very good effect. They bring key players from government, business and academia together with Chinese counterparts for wide-ranging discussions about sectors of mutual interest. We could benefit from an in-depth discussion of energy issues, outlining thinking on both sides about technology, infrastructure, education and the environment.
While we can't ignore security concerns, we need to need to be clear about where the risks are and, importantly, about options for risk mitigation. Our security agencies need to work with players, including the provinces and the private sector, to find sensible ways to manage risk, other than the unrealistic option of closing our doors.
The China relationship is above all one that needs to be managed. How and when we deliver messages, and who delivers them, matter a lot. This doesn't mean we can't speak frankly. But we need to deliver tough messages in ways that maximize the chances of being heard. Canada has many voices, but we need to ensure that our high-level messaging is consistent and coherent.
Finally, while we spend a lot of time worrying about what China might want to buy, or where Chinese might next wish to invest – we need to spend at least as much time thinking about what we want. What are the three or four things we absolutely have to get right in the next few years? My own list would start with clearer thinking on investment. If we take the time to engage key Chinese players and help them understand our system and our advantages, we will almost certainly find that there is a higher correlation between what we would like them to do in Canada and where self-interest directs them.
The coming days bring leadership change in China. But we can't sit back and assume this will make managing the relationship any easier. We need to work a lot harder at understanding China, warts and all. We need to think carefully about where we want to go and the risks entailed in getting there. And we need to bring patience, competence and confidence to managing our engagement with a dynamic, perplexing and increasingly important partner.
Consider it our welcome to the world of real foreign policy.
David Mulroney, a distinguished senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, was Canada's ambassador to China from July, 2009, to August, 2012.