In Search of Common Ground in Canada-China Relations

The importance of China to Canada's prosperity cannot be overstated, and yet it is often underappreciated. As Canada's second largest trading partner and an increasingly important investor in our country, China's economic importance to Canada is critical. Yet Canadian concerns over China's human rights violations, corruption and inadequate compliance with international and domestic law have impeded full discussion of how to strengthen Canada-China relations.

One way forward that could strengthen our economic ties while also enriching dialogue on difficult socio-political issues would be to emphasize co-operative innovation and knowledge development. Canada and China each have important needs in a number of knowledge and policy sectors, such as green technology, urban planning, distance education and community health care, that are integral to our sustainable futures. While concerns over intellectual property protection have impeded commercial technology transfers over the years, co-operative innovation and knowledge development offer an alternative to commercial licensing of information.

As the name suggests, co-operative innovation and knowledge development involves co-operation by Canadian and Chinese institutions in the development of knowledge and the pursuit of innovation, and may include mutual financial contributions, assignment and completion of shared tasks, and collaboration in oversight and implementation. Co-operative innovation and knowledge development through both the private and public sectors can create benefits for Canada and China while also strengthening institutional ties that are the foundation of expanded economic and socio-political co-operation.

For example, in green technology it could see the pairing of Canada's strengths in technology with China's vast capacity for manufacturing and distribution, with beneficial results for the environment in both countries. Shared development of urban planning techniques and technology could benefit China's cities, which are grappling with the immense challenges of transportation, housing, public services and pollution, while also helping urban planners in Canada prepare for a future where urban density is a given. Shared development of distance education programs could benefit both Canada and China in bringing secondary and post-secondary learning to remote communities. Shared knowledge development on public health care that accounts for both market forces and social welfare objectives could help improve Canada's existing systems while strengthening China's transition to universal care.

These are but a few examples illustrating the potential mutual benefits that could stem from expanded programs on co-operative innovation and knowledge development.

Aside from the specific benefits that can accrue from co-operative innovation and knowledge development, the ancillary impacts are also important. Collaboration on knowledge and innovation will unavoidably involve institutional linkages among universities, technical colleges and policy think tanks, with all the benefits that exchanges of specialists, teachers and researchers bring. Student exchange programs strengthen Canadian knowledge about China while also expanding the experience and knowledge of students from China. Expanded professional and administrative training through programs such as job-sharing, shadowing and mentoring that accompany co-operative innovation and knowledge development would have significant benefits for Canadian and Chinese professionals and government officials. Commercial spinoffs from joint innovation incubation programs are already well documented in areas of telecommunications and forestry (to name but a few examples), and can be expected to expand exponentially with a focused program on co-operative innovation and knowledge development.

In fact, building cross-border, bilateral partnerships to promote co-operative innovation and knowledge development was one of 10 core recommendations identified in the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada's "Building Blocks for a Canada-Asia Strategy," a non-partisan advisory document to the Government of Canada released Jan. 28. That document encourages collaborations between universities and incubators/accelerators; mentorships; international fellowships and internships; and field visits to Asia.

While the benefits of Canada adopting a strategic priority of co-operative innovation and knowledge development with China are clear, obstacles do remain. Surveys by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada reveal deep disquiet in Canadian society over closer ties with China. Hence a strong effort needs to be made to demonstrate the benefits for Canada, as well as a commitment to focus this effort on sectors of direct interest to Canada.

Attacks on lawyers, NGOs, and other civil society actors in China mandate Canada's commitment to civil society as a component of co-operative innovation and knowledge development. Long-standing problems with intellectual property protection militate in favour of measurable joint contributions from both sides, with benchmarking and oversight, so as to avoid the danger of joint Canada-China innovation initiatives becoming simply a mechanism for giving away Canadian ideas and technology.

Clear agreements and effective management will be important to ensure that the results from co-operative innovation and knowledge development are not used to strengthen forces of repression and injustice. These issues are manageable, however, and should not detract from an appreciation of the overall benefits that a targeted strategic commitment to co-operative innovation and knowledge development would bring for Canada.

Canada's engagement with China remains a work in progress. With a new Liberal government in Ottawa, Canadians have an opportunity to review existing dimensions of the Canada-China relationship and consider new paths that can support Canada's prosperity. Co-operative innovation and knowledge development would be a good place to start.

Pitman B. Potter is Professor of Law at the University of B.C. and HSBC Chair in Asian Research at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research, as well as a Senior Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

This piece was first published in The Vancouver Sun on February 19, 2016.