A policy based on engagement . . .
Aside from wheat sales to China in the 1950s and 1960s, Canada’s contact with the PRC was relatively limited for its first 20 years. After Canada formally recognized the PRC in 1970, relations between the two countries slowly but steadily developed. This was facilitated by a Canadian bipartisan consensus on the need to participate in opening China to the world – while and at the same time benefiting from trade opportunities. Canada-China relations initially suffered after the Tiananmen Square events of June 1989, where the CCP violently cracked down on student protesters. But the many Team Canada trade missions that started in 1994 quickly put amicable relations back on track. The Tiananmen events, however, marked a schism in Canada’s approach to China that fully surfaced when a Conservative government was elected in 2006.
Canada caught in the middle . . .
The Conservatives pursued a ‘principled’ approach to China from 2006 to 2015, and when the Liberal government came to power in late 2015 it had high hopes for rekindling a special relationship with Beijing. But times had changed. As President Xi Jinping became more confident and assertive, the U.S. had grown openly critical of China’s trade practices. It didn’t take long for Canada to feel the heat from the rising tensions between the world’s two major powers. The inclusion of article 32.10 in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement has prevented Canada from negotiating a free trade agreement with China. And the arrest of Huawei’s CFO in late 2018, triggered by an extradition request from the U.S., further highlights Canada’s fraught position between the two powers. Bilateral relations have since plunged to levels not seen in close to 50 years.
Charting a new course . . .
The debate about China in Canada has shifted drastically over the last few months. Public opinion has worsened, some businesses are reportedly having cold feet about venturing to China, and critical voices are now louder in the domestic policy debate. But whether or not Ottawa ends up taking a tougher stance on China, Canada needs more than ever to deal with the realities of, and engage with, a powerful and globally-engaged China. For this to happen, Canada needs to bring the various views on China together and merge them into a meaningful China policy based on a pragmatic evaluation of China’s contribution to the world and on our national interests and foreign policy goals.