Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University, and former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
Wednesday's surprise "official visit" to Canada by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, disclosed by Ottawa less than 24 hours earlier, underscores the Liberal government's intent to intensify relations with China radically, regardless of Canadian public opposition or security concerns.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said Mr. Wang was here for the previously unannounced "inaugural Canada-China Foreign Affairs Ministers' Dialogue, which is an important building block in our relationship with China" and to discuss "how to expand our strategic partnership for the benefit of Canadians."
Since the Liberals were elected on a platform that included revamping Canada's relationship with China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's policy mandarins have been preparing for enhanced engagement with Beijing, including negotiating a free-trade deal and opening Canada's natural-resources sector to high levels of Chinese state investment.
But there has been no public consultation on this major policy shift, and while corporate interests are lobbying for more trade opportunities, public opinion remains skeptical of Mr. Trudeau's enthusiasm for China. The Prime Minister is expected to travel to China in August, laying the groundwork for a renewed relationship with Beijing before the September G20 meeting in Hangzhou.
China plays hardball in trade talks, and there is speculation Beijing wants Ottawa to show its commitment to any new relationship by promising to approve the Northern Gateway pipeline. That would allow Chinese President Xi Jinping to make a state visit to Canada, accompanied by Chinese state enterprise officials with tens of billions of investment deals in hand. Beijing has been clear that a free-trade deal is contingent on Canada building the pipeline from Alberta and developing port facilities for giant tankers plying the tricky straits off the B.C. coast. This would require strong unilateral government action overriding the concerns of Canadians, notably First Nations worried about the environmental effects of such an energy corridor.
Despite Mr. Trudeau's intentions about straight talk on issues of concern, the truth is that China dictates "no-go" zones as the cost of its state investment. For example, Britain could renew relations with China only after agreeing to end high-level meetings with the Dalai Lama. No less will be demanded of Ottawa. Any Canadian talk about human rights, or China harassing people in Canada perceived to be hostile to the regime, or increasing cyberattacks and espionage, or Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, is dismissed by Beijing as, absurdly, "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people," thereby disinclining state firms to trade and invest in Canada.
Then there is the alarming extent to which China has infiltrated Canada's government and its bureaucracy, an issue raised by former CSIS director Richard Fadden in an interview with CBC's As It Happens in April. Ottawa must address this threat with more seriousness of purpose.
A report last year by the Institute for Research on Public Policy bemoaned the "negativity" of Canadian public opinion regarding China, noting a wide gap between experts and the public in understanding the country. The report urged Canada to "deal with China not as we might wish it to be, but as an evolving social, political and economic system with values and institutions different from our own."
Last fall, a government transition document urged the Liberals to initiate a "national conversation" about "informing public opinion about the critical importance of China to Canada's future prosperity" and "addressing negative opinions hindering Canada's interests." We shall soon see if this is the direction the government will go to neutralize Canadians' deep concerns about human rights in China.
China represents less than 4 per cent of Canadian exports, so the two countries could do a lot more trade, but whether a free-trade deal would benefit Canada is contingent on its terms and implementation. It could simply make our trade deficit with China even wider, with no significant opening of the Chinese market to Canadian commodities and services.
Ottawa's quandary is that all things are definitely not equal in the asymmetrical power relationship between Canada and China. On what terms do we further engage with China? Canadians want to know what our government's bottom line is for compromise on Canadian values in Canada-China relations.