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Opinion How Canada can reset its fractured relationship with China — for the better

Canadian and Chinese flags are pictured before a meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in 2017 in Beijing. (Fred Dufour/Pool via Reuters) (Pool New/Reuters)
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Humans are lousy at predicting the future — be it technological developments, stock prices or the rise and fall of political fortunes. We can, however, plan. It might be imperfect, tentative and with great need of amendment, but we can plan. As world fortunes and geopolitical relationships shift, Canada should start planning now — especially when it comes to China.

For the past several months, Canada’s relationship with China has become increasingly fractured. In December, Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the company’s founder, at the request of the United States. Meng is accused of fraud relating to business done between Skycom, which is linked to Huawei, and Iran — which is under U.S. sanctions. Since then, China has restricted Canadian canola imports, arrested two Canadian nationals on dubious “crimes related to national security” and sentenced two Canadians to death for drug offenses.

Now, Canada is considering whether to follow the lead of the United States and ban Huawei from participating in the country’s 5G network. The whole thing is a high-wire act with lives and livelihoods on the line.

Canada’s immediate concern is what to do with each of these interrelated political issues. Yves Tiberghien, a professor of political science and director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, writes that Canada ought to find a way to end the Meng affair quickly and that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should dispatch a high-level official to Beijing as soon as possible. The best approach to dealing with China, he argues, is deescalation. That would be a wise move — but these immediate concerns must also be considered against long-term goals.

China is undertaking an extraordinary infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative, which is worth roughly $1 trillion and will stretch across an estimated 70 countries. The plan is a whirling mix of capacity building, financial investment, technical development and militarization. It’s also, perhaps, a debt trap that will pull developing world countries into China’s orbit and keep them there. If we can imagine imperialism without picturing military boots on the ground, but rather work boots, then this effort is clearly imperial.

What does that mean for Canada? It means that it is time for a coherent national strategy on China, the product of a national discussion about where we see ourselves in the world today and where we want to be in the days to come. So far, Canada, through its Development Finance Institute Canada (FinDev), has allied with the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation along with the European Union to encourage and facilitate private global investment. The partnership is a modest countermeasure to China’s Belt and Road — an acknowledgment that partner countries ought to be doing something. That’s a start.

Looking ahead, Canada ought to be very clear and detailed about what its strategic and other goals are, while avoiding the predatory debt-trap or belligerent militarization models. Surely we can imagine a just, equitable series of global partnerships that serves as a counterweight to neo-imperial geopolitical misadventures. These relationships are already important, but they will become essential as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, challenging and extreme.

If we wish to avoid massive conflagration in the coming century, we must imagine a global order driven not by violence and exploitation, but by cooperation, fairness and respect for differences within the boundaries of decency. Canada can play a role in leading the development of diplomacy, the norms we ought to build and the investment required to support such a vision of the world. At the very least, political parties ought to be talking about it.

Some parties have started. The Conservative Party leader, Andrew Scheer, recently outlined his foreign policy vision for the country with an emphasis on China. He and his party are calling for a “total reset” of Ottawa’s relationship with Beijing, and for engagement “in a way that recognizes how our values and our interests are in many respects incompatible with those of the Chinese government.” Alluring. But what does that mean? According to Scheer, so far the toolbox has one primary tool — modest economic retribution in the form of canceling and restraining investment and protesting to the World Trade Organization. Is his vision simply less trade? What of countervailing investments or a deeper commitment to military alliances with the United States and other NATO partners?

The Liberal Party hasn’t released its 2019 platform yet, but its 2015 plan called for exploring “deeper trade relationships with emerging markets and established markets, including China and India.” On Belt and Road, the Liberal government supports “efforts and initiatives to increase trade, investment and growth in the Asia-Pacific region,” according to Adam Austen, press secretary to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. These efforts “must uphold international principles, including good governance, transparency, sustainability and respect for human rights,” he adds. All of that makes sense — but what if China’s efforts don’t live up to those imperatives? And are all trade, investment and growth in the Asia-Pacific region the same?

For its part, the New Democratic Party prefers its own reset with China. Guy Caron, the party’s foreign affairs critic, says “we are concerned with the politics-as-usual approach.” He points out, for instance, that China plays by a different set of economic rules, and that “calls for, say, respect for human rights have led nowhere, except to satisfy our own conscience." He adds," Instead of hoping against hope China will change its views on this topic, we have to acknowledge that actions speak louder than words, even if these actions seem tiny next to this heavy player." Agreed, but, again, it is unclear what this approach would look like.

There’s more to be said in the months to come — and lots of room for laying out specific, detailed and perhaps divergent visions. With China’s aggressive behavior toward Canada, there’s certainly no shortage of opportunity to have this discussion and fill in the blanks.

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