What’s next for Canada-China relations?

The notoriously shaky relationship took a turn for the worse in December 2018 when the RCMP, at the request of the United States, arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou for allegedly misleading multiple financial institutions and breaching the US imposed sanctions against Iran.

After Canada refused to release Wanzhou, the Chinese government arbitrarily arrested two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, on accusations of conspiring to steal state secrets and endangering China’s national security.

In the following months, China turned to economic sanctions as a tool to increase the pressure and placed various trade bans on key Canadian exports, including canola, soybeans, and meat products.

Canada’s then ambassador to China, John McCallum, only made matters worse. His efforts to defuse the tensions between the two countries backfired in a January 2019 press conference when he shared his own views on the fate of the trial, thus contradicting and undermining Canada’s official position on the issue.

The irreparable damage caused by McCallum left Prime Minister Trudeau with no choice but to relieve him from the post later that month. In a bizarre move, Canada left the top job vacant for over ten months until the recent appointment of business executive Dominic Barton.

Barton is no stranger to the region. His experience working as McKinsey & Company’s Asia Chairman between 2004 and 2009 allowed him to form relationships with Chinese state-owned clients, making him an expert on Asian-business affairs. These close ties led him to consult for Chinese state-owned clients on their construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, a major point of military contention within the region and beyond.

Barton’s time as the chair of the finance minister’s advisory council on economic growth and his high-level business experience in China appears to be the motivation behind the appointment. However, with no diplomatic experience, some question whether his position going forward will push human rights concerns to the periphery in favour of a “business as usual” approach.

At the very least, it appears that both countries may be leaning towards a welcomed reset in relations. Since Barton assumed the role of ambassador, China too has elected a new envoy, Cong Peiwu, lifted its 5-month suspension on Canadian meat products, and has allowed Barton to meet with the two Canadian detainees. However, the ambassador still faces three main challenges if he wishes to return the detainees and to push the relationship forward.

First, Barton will need to serve as an interlocutor between Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Francois-Phillippe Champagne, and Chinese officials. Despite both Barton and Champagne’s lack of experience in international affairs, Trudeau is undoubtedly banking on their previous records as high-powered and tough negotiators to solidify a deal. The ministerial shakeup is a risk, but given China’s previous attacks on Chrystia Freeland –  specifically in regards to her critical comments surrounding the Hong Kong protests – it was a move that needed to be done.

Second, Canada needs to think seriously – and quickly – about its position on the Hong Kong protests. Doubling down by adopting an aggressive stance condemning China’s actions may further escalate the conflict, resembling last year’s fiasco between Canada and Saudi Arabia. However, if Canada chooses to remain silent, it will fall short of its public commitment to upholding the rules-based international order. This will upset both its domestic constituents as well as its international allies who have come to expect Canadian leadership on such issues. To avoid this outcome, Ottawa desperately needs to coordinate with its global partners to ensure that when it speaks up, it does so in concert with a strong coalition.

The last, and perhaps most puzzling challenge, revolves around the possible ban of Huawei 5G networks from operating within Canada. A ban could potentially be the tipping point for bilateral relations and destroy any short-term prospects of releasing the two Canadians. This could also significantly affect Canada’s technological growth and development. Yet, inaction may be costlier, as Canada would expose itself to possible security breaches, as well as compromise its security integration with some of its closest allies who have already taken action.

Given the above, the prospect of Canada-China relations returning to normal is highly unlikely – at least in the short run. Indeed, the appointment of a new ambassador, a new foreign affairs minister, and the recent relief of trade tensions should not be understated. But, a valid point remains to be made that the ultimate resolution to the conflict has very little to do with Canada. Rather, Canada finds itself playing victim to what is primarily a US-China confrontation, navigating the thin line of standing up for its own interests while simultaneously appeasing its closest ally.



Kevin Budning is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Felix Leblanc is a MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. 

Featured images courtesy of APEX GC  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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