Special Edition: Canada-China at 50

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of official relations between Canada and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Although Canada and China have been interacting for much longer, official diplomatic relations with the PRC began on October 13, 1970. Both countries exchanged ambassadors in 1971, and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau visited China in 1973. The relationship developed slowly, facilitated by an initial Canadian bipartisan consensus on the need to participate in opening China to the world – while at the same time benefiting from trade opportunities. Canada-China relations then suffered after the Tiananmen Square events of June 1989, when the Chinese Communist Party violently cracked down on student protesters. But the many ‘Team Canada’ trade missions that began in 1994 quickly put amicable relations back on track.

This consensus held until the early 2000s when disagreements started to surface in Canada about the lack of progress made with China, especially on trade and human rights issues. As China was rising in the early 2000s, the consensus in Canada on the need to engage China began to fade. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, elected for the first time in 2006, initially held a ‘principled’ approach toward China before reversing this stance and emphasizing economics over moralism. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has also favoured the focus on trade and economics. But the hopes for stronger ties with Beijing were subsequently dashed by an increasingly assertive and confrontational China and its clash with the U.S.

On the 50th anniversary of Canada-China relations, today’s Special Edition of Asia Watch examines the challenges ahead in the bilateral relationship, trade opportunities, China’s role in global governance, and Canada’s way forward in its relations with China.