Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new foreign-policy team has what it takes to ramp up our trade and economic relationship with China. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is China-friendly, brings a creative policy mind and a wealth of blue-chip international connections to her new assignment. John McCallum will arrive as our ambassador in Beijing with impressive credentials as an economist and as the minister responsible for two major portfolios – National Defence and Immigration – with significant international dimensions.
Some observers are even suggesting the current Prime Minister is trying to forge with China the kind of Third Option that his father, Pierre Trudeau, tried but failed to put in place with Europe in the 1970s. For Mr. Trudeau, the idea was to get out from under the economic and cultural domination of the United States by encouraging deeper economic links with Europe. As we enter the Donald Trump era, it is easy to understand why Justin Trudeau might be interested in reviving the idea, with a rising China as the partner of choice.
But it is far from clear Canadians share his enthusiasm for a world that is more China-centric.
While these are early days, our emerging China policy appears to be hostage to two familiar and misguided tendencies. The first is to focus on only one aspect of modern China's complicated identity. The government seems smitten with the dynamic, entrepreneurial and innovative China that dominates the business pages, while remaining largely silent about the China that tramples human rights at home and intimidates rivals abroad. This is more than morally repugnant. Countries that flout laws and stifle the free exchange of ideas make for dubious business partners.
The second problematic tendency involves falling prey to an enduring and particularly Canadian naïveté about China and its ruling Communist Party. Pierre Trudeau flirted with a rose-coloured interpretation of Mao Zedong and his legacy, but was sufficiently worldly to keep it in check. That's more of a struggle for Justin Trudeau, who was rightly criticized for comments glossing over the impact of dictatorship in China.
And far from sending an early signal that national security always takes precedence over business deals, the government recently reopened consideration of a Chinese acquisition in Canada's high-tech sector that the Harper government had blocked. More worrying, the Prime Minister's presence at a fundraiser involving wealthy Chinese business people seemed to suggest that we are as willing to bend the rules as China is.
The notion of a Third Option with Europe was at least partly based on confidence in our deep and broadly based complementarity. The idea was that economic opportunities would flourish in a context of common values, shared international commitments and similar institutions. But the proposal foundered because the economic advantage of our proximity to the United States overwhelmed the fondest dreams of the Third Option proponents.
The idea of a Third Option with China is, if anything, more deeply flawed. It isn't just that trade with China, while promising, is still only about 10 per cent of what flows across the Canada-U.S. border, but that there is an almost complete lack of complementarity at the level of values, laws and institutions.
Here, the current Prime Minister may be hostage to his contention that we are a country without a core identity. Not only does this ignore our history, but it is fundamentally at odds with how Canadians see themselves and the world around them. It is why they express such deep and persistent reservations about establishing closer links with China, a country that does not respect the rule of law, or basic freedoms for artists, journalists, ethnic minorities and religious believers.
China is a tremendously important country and we absolutely need to get the relationship right. But we can't get it right if we're not clear about who we are and what we stand for.
Pierre Trudeau had to acknowledge that nostalgia is no basis for foreign policy; Justin Trudeau needs to understand that neither is naïveté.