New Page – Familiar Story: Thoughts on the Canada-China Relationship
Published: October 06, 2010
A productive relationship between Canada-China appears to be emerging from Prime Minister Harper’s visit to China in late 2009 to the visit of China’s President Hu Jintao to Canada in June 2010. There are many questions that continue to cloud the bilateral relationship, but signs of careful calculation on both sides of common interests and collaborative opportunities to develop a ‘strategic partnership’ are increasingly apparent. The success of the Canada-China relationship will depend on both powers having a clear understanding of each other and a willingness to focus on positive collaboration.
Hopes of Canada establishing a new productive relationship with China emerging from Prime Minister Harper’s visit to China in late 2009 are well on the way to being realized with the recent visit of China’s President Hu Jintao to Canada in June. Conclusion of the agreement granting “Approved Destination Status” to Canada, ongoing efforts on a bilateral agreement for the promotion and protection of investments, and even budding hopes of a free trade agreement all signal that a new page has turned in the Canada-China relationship. There appears to have been a careful calculation on both sides that common interests and a shared vision of a possible collaborative future mandate a sustained approach toward “strategic partnership.” The success of the Canada-China relationship will depend on both powers having a clear understanding of each other and a willingness to focus on positive collaboration – the notion of ‘partnership’ unavoidably involving dynamics of compromise and consensus.
Canada’s relations with China will require careful tending, however, as many of the questions that previously clouded our bilateral relations still exist. While the China of 2010 is certainly different from the China of ten years ago (or even 2005 when the ‘strategic partnership’ concept was formalized during President Hu’s last visit to Canada), conditions and practices there continue to challenge Canadians. Issues of restrictive state procurement rules, changing tax standards, and differential application of regulations in areas ranging from environment to labour and corporate social responsibility give pause to foreign investors. Intellectuals like Liu Xiaobo and Chen Guangcheng languish in prison or under house arrest or internal exile for expressing opinions deemed contrary to official orthodoxy. Treatment of minority nationalities and religious adherents continues to fall short of international standards. China’s state secrets information control regime continues to be used not only to limit and punish local dissent, but also increasingly to control the behaviour of foreign companies, as evidenced by the Rio Tinto controversy and the arrest and sentencing of American geologist Xue Feng.
China’s conduct within Canada also raises questions, as Beijing’s diplomatic and consular officials attempt to pressure local governments, universities and civic groups over issues ranging from the Falun Gong to Tibet. China’s diplomatic posts deploy considerable organizational support to induce large scale pro-China demonstrations and intimidate critics. Indeed, the recent Hu visit itself revealed a peculiar vision of bilateral partnership, as Chinese government concerns over intemperate assertions by civic groups and embarrassing questions by the media led to restrictions on public events and to the decision not to hold a joint press conference - a departure from usual practice in bilateral visits.
Nonetheless, there are growing reasons for optimism. A number of top leadership posts in China will become vacant within the next 3-5 years. Whomever of the candidates-in-waiting actually takes the reins of power will have an unprecedented level of awareness and experience in international matters. Leading candidates Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping, as well as the broader range of provincial party secretaries to whom top leadership posts are often awarded, all have significantly greater international experience than their predecessors.
Changes are also afoot in the realms of ideology and communications. The government’s capacity to restrict the flow of information across China is much curtailed, resulting in a shift from state suppression of information to greater official engagement and debate in support of orthodoxy. China’s government and public institutions also are indicating growing willingness to engage with the views of the international community. For example, the leading theoretical journal of the Communist Party of China, Outlook (Liaowang), has begun soliciting articles by foreign scholars containing views and analysis about China. International policy and legal specialists are increasingly invited to publish in Chinese university journals and are more able to publish collaborative work at important academic publishing houses in China. As well, official comments by Chinese policy specialists on China’s conditions are increasingly frank and open. While the recent controversy surrounding the coverage of political reform in the periodicals Caixin and Southern Metropolis News has been cited as an example of state interference, this is also evidence of an increasingly open debate on political issues which heretofore were taboo. These instances of openness represent dramatic changes from ten or even five years ago, but whether they are sustainable remains to be seen—memories of previous periods in PRC history certainly give pause for reflection.
While China’s challenges going forward are primarily domestic in nature, they carry international as well as bilateral implications. China’s investment and security activities in Southeast Asia, the Mideast, and Africa reflect both economic priorities (e.g. access to energy and food) as well as security imperatives (e.g. maintaining open sea lanes to China) that have implications for Canada. Although Canada’s influence in these matters is limited, collaboration with China on a range of related commercial issues such as environmental and energy conservation technologies; policy issues such as climate change, global health and migration; and human resource opportunities in education and technical training, provides important opportunities for building a healthy relationship. Current conditions and policy behaviour in China also provide opportunities for Canada to influence policies and practices in a wide range of issues affecting the bilateral relationship such as criminal law enforcement, corruption control, and CSR. Collaborative approaches to resolving trade and investment disputes, fashioning cooperative policies on issues of global importance, and even developing shared programs on human rights and governance would speak volumes about the value of ongoing cooperation. Clearly there is much to be done and much that Canada can do to strengthen the relationship and to benefit from its growth.
The past year has seen the turning of a new page in the story of Canada-China relations. While we can neither ignore nor defend conditions in China that run counter to Canadian values, the opportunities presented to us today allow us to build a productive collaborative relationship acknowledging differences on many issues but also affirming common interests and a commitment to cooperation on others. It will take patience and perseverance, but the future for Canada-China cooperative relations looks promising.