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A 50th anniversary with the potential for fireworks, but no celebration

By: Kelvin Heppner

October 14, 2020

Opinion

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This week marks 50 years since Canada, with a prime minister holding the surname Trudeau, formally recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China.

Normally, golden anniversaries are cause for great celebration, but the world is not normal right now. Or at least it’s not in a state we want to believe is normal.

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It’s well-documented that the Canada-China relationship is as cold as it’s been in many years, with the mercury dropping a long way from 2017 when there were actual expectations of progress on a bilateral trade deal when the younger Prime Minister Trudeau visited Beijing.

Since then, we’ve seen two Canadians held hostage for nearly two years, multiple Canadians questionably sentenced to execution, and the use of made-up trade barriers to block Canadian exports, including canola shipments from Canada’s two largest canola exporters. That’s not to mention the clamping down on freedoms in Hong Kong — home to hundreds of thousands of Canadian expats, widespread evidence of the Chinese Communist Party attempting to meddle in domestic politics in Canada and other countries around the world, and the human rights violations of Uyghur people in China’s eastern region.

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Through all of this, the Canadian government has diplomatically admonished China, but for the most part, Prime Minister Trudeau and those around him have tread carefully to not upset China’s leadership, fearing further reprisals.

But could that be changing? Never mind celebrations, there are a number of signs Trudeau and the Liberals may have finally decided to take a more aggressive approach to China.

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First, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, long-time Liberal cabinet minister Bob Rae, hardly held back after his Chinese counterpart described Canada as a bully at the UN’s General Assembly last week, referring to Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer Ms. Meng Wanzhou.

“This is something which we shall never forget,” said Rae. “…If you think insulting us, insulting my country or insulting anyone is going to help in resolving this situation, you are sadly mistaken.”

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Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also accused China of “hostage diplomacy” last week, referring to the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

Then on Tuesday, 50 years to the day since Pierre Trudeau acknowledged the People’s Republic of China, Justin Trudeau used what might be the most critical words he’s ever spoken publicly to describe the “significant strain on Canada-China relations.”

“We will remain absolutely committed to working with our allies to ensure that China’s approach of coercive diplomacy, its arbitrary detention of two Canadian citizens alongside other citizens of other countries around the world is not viewed as a successful tactic by them,” said the prime minister.

The Canadian government is “going to continue to work with our fellow, like-minded nations around the world to impress upon China that its approach to internal affairs and global affairs is not on a particularly productive path for itself or for all of us,” continued Trudeau.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne also issued a statement on Tuesday, noting Canada “takes a sober view in examining our relationship (with China), considering the importance of mutual respect and reciprocity, adherence to rules and principles, including human rights, and achieving results that are in Canadian interests…The use of coercive diplomacy causes Canada to re-examine its approach, with a focus on multilateral cooperation.”

In fact, the Canadian government is working on a new strategy for dealing with China, said the foreign affairs minister.

“As we build a new framework for relations with China, Canada will work with partners to hold the Chinese government accountable to its international obligations,” said Champagne.

For context, the Liberals are embarking on this “new framework for relations with China” after polling has shown a significant decline in how Canadians feel about China. New Opposition leader Erin O’Toole has also notably made tough talk on China one of his early messaging priorities. Whether the Liberals are feeling any pressure from the Conservative leader’s strong stance or not, the increasingly negative sentiment among Canadians is at a minimum giving the Liberals room to move toward being more aggressive against China.

Any decision to change course on China also has to account for Canada’s relationship with its nearest neighbour. The health of Canada-China relations over time can usually be directly linked to the ongoing geopolitical struggle between the U.S. and China, with Canada trying to walk the line, but ultimately having no choice but to side with its closest ally and largest trading partner. It’s possible the Liberals see the U.S. election, and the cloud of chaos surrounding and following it, as an opportunity to reset Canada’s policies toward China while the Chinese have their attention focused elsewhere.

It also helps the Liberals that Canada is not the first country to go down this path, as others, notably Australia, are blazing this trail of resource-rich and export-oriented countries pushing back against growing Chinese influence. Australia has already infuriated China with its calls for a global inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 in China, which has resulted in China predictably restricting agricultural imports from Australia.

And that’s a major concern for Canadian agriculture, if the Canadian government is going to follow through on a more aggressive approach to China. Agricultural exports are clearly a favourite target for China, and for that reason, it’s critical that other markets are developed and maintained.

But that being said, China needs protein and other products that Canadian farmers can grow.

Despite the poor diplomatic relationship over the last few years, China has continued to import vast quantities of commodities grown in Canada, including peas, wheat, and feedgrains. Even Canadian canola, which news headlines would lead you to think has been banned, is finding its way into China in significant quantities through alternate routes.

While it won’t be a celebration, it’s possible we will see more fireworks on trade if the Canadian government follows through and turns up the heat. But over time, China will still want to source food and feed from Canada — even if it happens quietly, in the shadows, and behind the scenes.