The deterioration of the Canada-China relationship is a conflation of three separate trajectories: a pig-headed pursuit of American hegemony by the Trudeau Liberals, an effective campaign by the Conservatives to box the prime minister in on China, and Canada’s security agency running amok.
Notwithstanding his image as a hip internationalist, Justin Trudeau’s realpolitik engagement in the world has been nothing short of 1960s-style American imperialism. From trying to topple democratically elected regimes in Latin America, to the non-stop perpetuation of the proxy war in Ukraine, he has vanquished any semblance of independent Canadian foreign policy.
With China, he has gone all in. His Indo-Pacific strategy confirms that there is no daylight between us and the Americans. It is a virtual carbon copy of U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Defense Strategy, released last November. U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen even remarked that Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy is “completely synched-up” with the Biden administration. Both push all the hot buttons of sinophobia.
The Conservatives have pounced on the opportunity, framing any attempt at moderation by the Liberals as an ideological contradiction and a matter of national security. From support for the Uyghurs, to the foreign agent registry, and expulsion of a Chinese diplomat, the Conservatives have put Trudeau in a tight spot. Even the spy agency CSIS has turned on him, leaking sensitive information and writing self-righteous editorials to defend its illegal actions. An RCMP investigation into the leaks has not yet led to arrests.
Trudeau finds himself too tied to the Americans and driven to the edge by the Conservatives. It would seem there is no way out for the Liberals. Getting buried on China could be their undoing. That would be a shame, because our relationship with China is actually on very solid footing.
According to a University of Alberta analysis, at year-end 2022, Canada had imported a record $100-billion of goods from China, up from $86-billion in 2021. Canadian exports to China also reached a record high at $20.6-billion. In part, this is due to the Chinese government’s lifting of sanctions against our canola seeds. It is the same story south of the border. Data released in February shows that U.S.-China trade hit a record $690.6-billion in 2022, with U.S. imports growing by 6.3 per cent, to $536.8-billion.
If trade does not indicate how people feel about each other, perhaps tourism does. Destination Canada notes that in 2019, over 700,000 Chinese tourists came to Canada. China is Canada’s second largest long-haul market, and the largest for spend, with the average tourist spending $2,900 per trip. After the COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted in 2022, year-to-date arrivals increased by 59 per cent over 2021. During Chinese New Year in January 2023, there were an estimated 34 direct flights from China every week into Vancouver alone.
Canada’s history with China runs the gamut from the days of Dr. Norman Bethune helping the country recover from the atrocities of Western and Japanese colonialism to massive wealth creation during the 1990s and 2000s. We lined our pockets, they lined theirs. But China is now the world’s second largest economy, and it behaves like it. For reference, it is worth noting that as of January 2023, the U.S. owed US$859-billion in debt to China, up from a mere US$101-billion in the year 2000.
That last point is important. The U.S. is in indeed in an existential funk with China, but we need not share that anxiety and paranoia. Our European allies don’t. French president Emmanuel Macron made that clear after his visit to Beijing in April. He does not support the American approach to China. Instead he wants France to have autonomy to pursue its own strategic interests. No reason why Canada cannot do the same.
But first, Trudeau needs to get ahead of the curve with the Conservatives. Their position on China is mostly political theatre. It can be defeated with broad-based policy initiatives. The foreign agent registry, for example, should be sold as a catch-all against all countries, friends and foes alike. This would force the Conservatives to be as fervent about meddling by, say, Israel, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and beyond as they are about China. They should not get a free pass for their double-standards on foreign policy.
To achieve all this, the Liberals need to equip themselves with seasoned China experts who can counter Beijing’s transgressions with diplomatic tact, not knee-jerk reactions. They should include specialists who follow events like the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which signaled China’s shift from market-orientation to more state control of the economy. They can help the government adjust to exploit markets like China’s burgeoning semiconductor sector. The Australians are doing it, to great effect. Their China file is steered by their Mandarin-speaking former prime minster Kevin Rudd.
Lastly, Trudeau needs to bring the CSIS leakers to justice, and quickly. He should be mindful that with a bureaucracy gone rogue, it won’t be China or the Conservative pressure points he will have to worry about. It will be Canada’s very survival as a democratic, self-determining nation.
Bhagwant Sandhu is a retired director general from the federal government. Between 2002-21 he held senior roles in several departments, including Fisheries and Ocean Canada, Infrastructure Canada, Treasury Board Secretariat, and Public Works Canada. He has also held executive positions in the governments of Ontario and British Columbia – Bio Retrieved from The Hills Times