China’s return to economic, political, and military prominence in the Indo-Pacific region has direct implications for Canadian businesses, citizens, and the rules-based order that Canada has relied on in the post-World War II period for its security and prosperity.

Maximizing the benefits of China’s return to global prominence and its growing prosperity will need to be balanced by risk contingency. Necessarily, both should be based on a clear understanding of China’s ambitions, the limits of its rise, and a clear-eyed assessment of its track record of domestic, regional, and global behaviour.

China’s Ambitions

What does China want? What world does it envision for itself by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?

To glean an understanding of China’s ambitions, it is instructive to refer to prominent scholars such as Tsinghua University’s Yan Xue Tong, who writes:

“China will work hard to shape an ideological environment conducive to its rise and counter Western values. For example, the United States defines democracy and freedom from the perspective of electoral politics and personal expression, while China defines democracy and freedom from the perspective of social security and economic development. Washington should accept these differences of opinion instead of trying to impose its own views on others.”

Yan Xue Tong

Yan is not alone in articulating the relationship between China’s internal political order and the stability of a CCP-led China and foreign affairs. Peking University’s Wang Yisi stressed in his recent Foreign Affairs essay that China has perpetually seen the U.S. as “the most significant threat to China’s sovereignty and national security has long been U.S. interference in its internal affairs aimed at changing the country’s political system and undermining the CCP.”

This echoes former CCP Party School Professor, and now exile, Cai Xia’s understanding that, ever since “the CPP came to power, the CCP has treated domestic and foreign affairs as ‘one integrated game,’ with the top priority of strengthening the CCP’s control and preventing the collapse of the regime. In this regard, diplomacy is an extension of domestic affairs and is seen as a device to keep the party in power.”

In short, regime survival and ambition are linked to changing the post-World War II international order, such that concepts such as rule of law, democracy, human rights, sovereignty, security, and multilateralism reflect CCP interpretations rather than U.S. or so-called Western interpretations of these concepts.

Implications for Canada

For Canadian foreign policy makers, this is problematic at several levels. First, Canada and other middle powers and supporters of the current international order have invested heavily in concepts such as rule of law that make leaders and institutions accountable. China, or more specifically CCP concepts of rule of law, is based on the concept of law-based governance in which the “CCP ultimately sees the law as a tool to ensure stability and order, as well as being a means to justify and maintain Party rule” as Malin Oud and co-authors of the “Decoding China” Project highlight.  

Second, relativistic views of human rights that are state-centric and place “stability, harmony, subsistence and economic development take precedence over human rights, especially civil and political rights,” or interpretations of multilateralism where “interaction with other countries is based not on universally binding rules for international cooperation but on bilateral agreements” directly challenge Canadian interests promoting human rights at home and abroad and the promotion of multilateralism that inculcates stability into the international system through predictable rules and binding agreements.

The arbitrary imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in December 2018 and subsequent canola export suspension are illustrative examples of an international order with Chinese characteristics.   

While Chinese diplomats and scholars concentrate their criticism on the U.S. in their analyses and aspire to “shape an ideological environment conducive to its rise and counter Western values,” Canadians should be crystal clear that these changes would negatively affect Canadian interests, citizens, and businesses if successful.

The arbitrary imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in December 2018 and subsequent canola export suspension are illustrative examples of an international order with Chinese characteristics.   

Opportunity maximization

Like many other countries, China will continue to be a natural destination for Canadian natural resources, agricultural products and businesses interested in tapping the enormous Chinese consumer market. As China’s economy continues to grow, the number of opportunities and the economic benefits associated with that growth will be a boon to Canadians.

This holds true even today in which Canada-China relations are arguably at their lowest. According to a March 31, 2021 Statistics Canada report, stocks of all major crop kinds including wheat, canola, barley, soybeans, peas, oats and lentils were down compared to a year earlier, driven primarily by Chinese demand.

The economic reality of the benefits of trade with China should be considered carefully by proponents of economic decoupling. This is not to suggest that selective decoupling of certain sectors of the economy should not be pursued such as personal protective equipment (PPE), 5G and 6G technologies, and other sensitive sectors of the economy. The take-home message is that a blanket approach to any form of decoupling with China would only hurt Canadian interests.    

Opportunities to cooperate bilaterally and multilaterally with China also have potential benefits for Canada when the two nations are aligned on issues. This functional approach to political cooperation can bring tangible benefits to each nation. For example, both countries have implemented ten-year visas to promote business relations, signed extradition agreements and cooperated in the areas of corruption eradication. These initiatives are important for each country.

Canada will also need to work with China on other issues, ranging from climate change to transnational diseases as well, otherwise we are likely to experience more extreme weather change and another pandemic.

Risk contingency

Canada has no territorial issues or lingering unsettled wartime issues with China. Notwithstanding, China’s behaviour in the East China Sea (ECS), South China Sea (SCS), and Cross-Straits relations with Taiwan has the potential to significantly impact friends of Canada and Canadian interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

China’s behaviour in both the ECS and SCS, its outright rejection of the July 2016 arbitration case out of The Hague and its island building activities in the SCS send a very strong message to countries like Canada that are deeply invested in the liberal international order – and in international institutions – that China is not willing abide by rules set out under international law. 

Tandem with China’s re-emergence, we are witnessing economic power being translated into political and military power. This has unsettled its immediate neighbours with many seeing China’s more assertive and unilateral behaviour in the SCS and ECS as being tangentially linked to its economic largess. 

Unilateral actions and a refusal to abide by the outcome of international arbitration tests the liberal international system in ways that are counter to Canada’s championing of international institutions, multilateralism, and an international rules-based order in which countries abide by the international laws and the institutions that arbitrate and rule on matters that come before it.

Canada’s commitment to these institutions is both strategic but also normative. At the strategic level, smaller countries such as Canada risk being dominated by large countries if institutions are not in place to mitigate and attenuate power asymmetries that exist between the superpowers, middle powers and states that do not within that typology. If the gap between our values and national imperatives were larger, Canada would face this dilemma with the U.S.

The overt rejection of the results of the international arbitration sends the signal that larger countries need not follow international law.

An erosion of the liberal international system in another part of the world would have consequences for Canadian national imperatives. In terms of China’s re-emergence and China’s actions in the ECS and SCS, we are witnessing a challenge to international law through the rejection of decisions made by institutions that China belongs to. The overt rejection of the results of the international arbitration sends the signal that larger countries need not follow international law.

In the context of the East and South China Seas, eschewing international law may not have immediate security consequences as we have no territorial claim in the region.

But the concern for Canadians is threefold. First, the potential for conflict, which would have economic repercussions for Canada. With the East and South China Seas acting as major trade and resources thoroughfares, friction or conflict in either, or below, these regions would affect Canada.

Second, Canada has many friends in the region who share similar liberal democratic values, commitment to international institutions, human rights and the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. By not standing by for countries who share the same norms we are weakening our own position in the international system by not demonstrating our principled based commitment to other countries and regions facing a ‘might is right’ approach to foreign policy.

Third, Canada has a vested interest to see the Indo-Pacific region continue to develop into a rules-based region in which states’ behaviour is moderated by a common set of rules by everyone abides. This does not only include maritime security but also trade, human rights, rule-of-law, and abiding by international agreements.

The adoption of the June 2020 National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong is an illustrative example of the consequences of violating the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Today, freedom of press has dramatically eroded in Hong Kong, citizens no longer assemble in public to ensure their government is accountable and university professors and students self-censor for fear of being charged with NSL violations. 

Canada needs to work with like-minded states to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region continues to prioritize a rules-based approach to international relations, agreements, trade, human rights, and rule-or-law. Not doing so could prejudice Canada in grasping the economic opportunities that exist in the region and erode the international order that has brought prosperity and security to Canadians for nearly eight decades.

A smart China foreign policy is an Indo-Pacific strategy

In negotiating the opportunities and risks associated with Canada-China relations, it would be prudent to embed a Canadian China strategy into a broader Indo-Pacific strategy that resonates with our long- term interests, our middle power identity, and like-minded countries like the U.S., Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the E.U. amongst others.

This includes focusing on buttressing a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific with allies and partners. By doing so,  Canada can continue to prosper and remain wedded to our middle power identity that prioritizes international institutions, human rights, development, multilateralism, and rule-of-law.

Multilateral trading agreements such as the CPTPP are important ways to embed Canada into the region based shared rules of trade. It gives Canada political capital as an Indo-Pacific stakeholder and economic options when Canada-China relations stumble.

Canada should work with Japan and other CPTPP members to advocate for the expansion of the CPTPP and find ways to include the U.S. This could even include floating the idea of a “CPTPP 2.0” that addresses the Biden administration’s focus on a foreign policy for the middle class.

Emerging infrastructure and connectivity initiatives, public goods provision through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), and creative middle power diplomacy are further platforms to approach Canada-China relations from a position of strength, strong and diverse partnerships, and a focus on a free and open rules-based order.

Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

Photo Credit: Prime Minster’s Office

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