Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and is a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
Last year's declaration by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne that Britain would be China's "best partner in the West" has just been followed up by an extraordinary state visit to Britain by Chinese President Xi Jinping, one that led to the signing of agreements worth nearly $80-billion.
These deals controversially include giving China a substantial stake in Britain's nuclear industry as both an investor and contractor, and represent the most dramatically comprehensive push for Chinese investment by any Western country to date.
Because this has been at the expense of all other non-business considerations in relations with China, Britain has in effect significantly weakened the negotiating power of all other countries over such issues as human rights, cyberespionage, China's ambitions in the South China Sea and the many other concerns and threats occasioned by China's dramatic economic rise to power serving its nationalistic imperatives.
This begs the question whether Canada will follow suit with a similar "trade first" approach to China. In 2012, Justin Trudeau told CTV's Question Period that his support for the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corp.'s acquisition of Nexen, and for expanded future Chinese state investment in Canada, was at least partly because "obviously, my family has historical ties with China."
In the context of his time, Pierre Trudeau evidently felt that, despite his championing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for Canadians, people in the Third World were better suited to authoritarian dictatorships. Hence his close friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro and his much expressed reverence for China's Chairman Mao Zedong.
In 1984, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang became the first Communist leader to address a joint session of Canada's Parliament. In his introductory remarks that day, then-prime minister Trudeau enthused that "our bilateral relations have achieved such variety, depth and warmth," and effused about the "most valued memory" of his 1973 visit to China, discussing politics with then-premier Zhou Enlai "far into the night." A few years later, Mr. Zhao was purged for supporting the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, and eventually died silenced and imprisoned under severe house arrest.
Later, Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien followed a policy of "quiet diplomacy" with China on non-commercial matters, as urged by his Chinese interlocutors. This was designed ostensibly to better serve Canadian interests by insulating our economic initiatives in China from Chinese politics. Mr. Chrétien's view was that China's integration into global regimes such as the World Trade Organization would eventually lead Beijing to adopt democratic institutions and independent rule of law.
In fact, Canada's share of China's imports actually declined over the Chrétien years, and Beijing's human-rights record continues to deteriorate. Amnesty International reports that, since July of this year, 245 human-rights lawyers and activists have been targeted by the Chinese government. Incredibly, this year's winner of the Confucius Peace Prize is Zimbabwe's appalling President Robert Mugabe.
Clearly, "quiet diplomacy" has had no discernible positive impact, but rather functions as tacit consent for egregious Chinese regime behaviour. Canada should have no further part of it. We simply lose the respect of the Chinese regime if we do not speak out honestly and constructively about our concerns over China's human-rights violations, support for rogue dictators, cyberespionage and underhanded attempts to subvert the decisions of Canadian political leaders to further China's state interests.
The Trudeau family's "historical ties with China" will undoubtedly provide the younger Mr. Trudeau with a strong basis for engaging the Chinese leadership. We can expect that he will make a state visit to China an early foreign-policy foray, followed by a return visit by Mr. Xi to Canada, accompanied by a large business delegation with billions to invest.
Willingness to seriously engage the once-isolated China was a positive hallmark of past Liberal governments, from Pierre Trudeau on, but the dynamics of that relationship have changed considerably since that era. It would be negligent to not appreciate the threat to Canadian sovereignty and interests posed by Beijing's non-democratic, nationalistic, expansionist Leninist politics.
Canada should not blithely follow Britain's example and try to compete for the title of China's "best partner in the West." We must be mindful of more than just the short-term economic benefits of unconditional engagement with China.
Having a new government in Ottawa is a time for fresh beginnings, and our new regime should consider its approach to China very carefully in light of Canadian interests and values.