The Future of Canada-China Relations

A new Canadian assessment of China?

The first 50 years of Canada's relationship with China was based on engagement. It is unknown how the next 50 years will unfold, especially as it appears the confrontation between the world's two superpowers will continue for the foreseeable future. With public opinion on China at a record low and with the 'two Michaels' unjustly jailed, it isn't easy to imagine the diplomatic relationship improving significantly anytime soon. Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan recently referred to those detentions as coercive and hostage diplomacy. Canada's ambassador to the U.N., Bob Rae, has also rebuked China for its treatment of the two Michaels. And in light of new Conservative leader Erin O'Toole’s tough stance on China, it is hard not to expect a new and more realist assessment of China in Ottawa that will guide Canada's China policy in the years to come.

Canadian institutions and expertise . . .

To deal with China effectively, Canada must expand the space for a healthy and nonpartisan debate. In that sense, the restart of the Special Committee on Canada-China relations, whose work led to 48 experts' testimony before Parliament prorogued it in August, is welcome. Other initiatives, such as Canada West Foundation’s China Brief, APF Canada's upcoming webinar on how other states are viewing and approaching China, and the Canadian International Council's new series on Canada-China relations will enrich not only our understanding of China but will also foster constructive debates. More than ever, Canada needs to up its game on China and chart a strategy to move ahead.

Finding the right balance . . .

Finding the right balance in confronting China on issues significant to Canada's values and co-operating with Beijing when it serves Canadian interests will not be an easy task. The last three decades of Canada's approach to China have too often oscillated between admiration and criticism and too often focused on the trade versus human rights debate at the exclusion of other issues. As recently argued, narrowly focusing on either approach doesn't serve Canada's multifaceted interests. And as several experts have highlighted, effectively dealing with China involves competing and confronting China on some issues and working with it on others. For this endeavour, collaborating with other "like-minded" countries facing similar challenges with China will be key.