The Trump Effect is Changing Canadian Views on China

Thank you President Donald Trump. Your hard talk and the consequent uncertainty in our trading relationships is motivating Canadians to reconsider how we view Asia, particularly China.

We thought it was important to poll Canadians about their views on China and a China free-trade agreement (FTA) after the U.S. inauguration to see if there were any changes in attitudes towards China. The poll was conducted in the last two weeks in March, so the results discussed below do not capture Canadian sentiments after the recent Trump decision on softwood lumber, nor his comments on our supply-management regime for dairy.

The key findings of our 2017 national opinion poll, released today, are: Canadians are not only recognizing the importance of closer economic relations with China in creating opportunities for business today and in the long term, but they are warming up to the prospect of a possible free-trade agreement with the world’s second-largest economy. Indeed, as anti-trade, anti-globalization sentiments rock Europe and the United States, a majority of Canadians (62 per cent) not only believe that expanded trade with China is important, but, surprisingly, see a possible future where China steps up to the plate as a global economic leader.

The poll also reveals that more than half of Canadians (55 per cent) support a Canada-China FTA – that’s a nine-percentage-point increase from the Asia Pacific Foundation’s polling last year and a 19-point increase from 2014. And that’s statistically significant. Their support for expanded economic engagement stems from their belief that it will bring more opportunities for Canadian business (76 per cent) and youth (70 per cent), bring greater economic prosperity to Canada (57 per cent), encourage needed investment in Canadian businesses (63 per cent), and increase Canada’s international competitiveness (54 per cent).

These new shifts in Canadian public opinion could not come at a more fortuitous time for the Canadian government. Well before the recent fusillade of anti-Canada trade rhetoric and punitive duties from the Trump administration, the Trudeau administration was ramping up consultations with the Chinese on a comprehensive trade agreement. Just last week, China’s trade delegation concluded a second round of exploratory talks in Ottawa, while Canada’s Finance Minister Bill Morneau and International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne wrapped up a six-day visit to Beijing for the first round of a new Canada-China economic and financial strategic dialogue.

As the Canadian government pushes forward with its China agenda, it can draw some confidence from Canadians’ increasing openness to stronger economic relationships with China. And it can take heart from additional findings from our poll that support Ottawa’s policies of increasing the number of highly qualified immigrants entering the country, investing in transport infrastructure and prioritizing collaboration on measures to address pollution and protect the environment.

However, as our national opinion poll also reveals, Canadians expect a broad and balanced agenda from government that addresses both economic, as well as social and political issues in connection with China. Overall public support for Canada’s greater economic engagement with China notwithstanding, Canadians continue to have concerns that engagement will make Canada more vulnerable to economic and political pressures from China (64 per cent) will lead to an influx of cheap Chinese goods in domestic markets (56 per cent) and benefit China more than it would benefit Canada (51 per cent).

These ongoing concerns are consistent with our past polling on Canadians’ views on Asia and send a clear message to government that, while the pursuit of closer economic relations is seen as necessary and timely, Canadians also expect their government to call on the Chinese government to respect human rights and introduce democratic reforms in the Chinese political system. This is why Canada will require a nuanced and long-term strategic approach to engagement with China.

And let’s be clear – when it comes to China, Canadians are no fools. They know the Chinese interest in Canada is not because they want to be our friends: Canada is a strategic stepping-off point to the U.S. and Latin American markets, and a resource-rich, friendly trader with quality goods and services, the rule of law and a global reputation for good governance.

Our national opinion poll clearly indicates that Canadians feel that global economic dynamics are changing, and that when it comes to Canada’s future economic prosperity, China is a dance partner we simply cannot ignore. We may not like what we hear from south of the border, but the United States is a critical trading partner and friend. But, as China becomes a global leader on economic issues with a burgeoning middle class of newly minted consumers, engagement on economic, environmental and security issues will be critical for the diversification of our strategic interests.

This piece was first published in The Globe and Mail on May 3, 2017