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June 22, 2015

Canada doing business with China

The Canadian Charger

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In his recent book Middle Kingdom Middle Power, David Mulroney, former Canadian Ambassador to China, calls for Canada to become more engaged with China, while at the same time standing up for Canada's interests and values - a position he feels is at odds - to say the least - with the conduct of the Harper government.

“We need to remain conscious of China's backsliding on human rights cases, about its assertiveness in its East Asian region and about its interference in our own affairs. We need to acknowledge that it is a rising but insecure China, not an increasingly feeble Russia, that poses the greatest challenge to global security over the long term ... Above all, we need to be willing to stand up for the values that China is now challenging.”

Mr. Mulroney indicated that the Harper government's reluctance to deal with China is part of a larger problem: the Harper government should be more focused on the world – the one we live in.

“It would be a big help, of course, if we could grow up and see foreign relations as something more than an extension of Canadian domestic politics.”

“We need to grow up in other ways too. At our worst moments, we infantilize foreign policy, thinking that we should form relationships with countries because we like them ... Despite the onrush of globalization and transformation of Canadian society through immigration, it's as if we've become less curious about our place in the world, and steadily more focused on our own affairs.

This is our collective failure, but one that has been exacerbated by our lack of political will and leadership.”

Mr. Mulroney used Canada's failure to obtain a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council as an example of Prime Minister Harper's insular thinking.

“A disconnect also existed between the prime minister and his diplomats in relation to our ultimately futile campaign to win a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The prime minister was not originally inclined to pursue this goal. When he did come around, he was frustrated by persistent efforts by Foreign Affairs to discourage him from taking firm measures in support of Israel, an orientation that's at the heart of his and his party's convictions, a core interest. He was told that this would jeopardize our chances of being elected. It didn't help that when he asked why we wanted to win a seat, he would be told, 'So that we can advance our core interests.' ”

Mr. Mulroney said official Ottawa is risk-averse at the best of times, but the communications sections of most government departments have evolved into something that, for him, brings to mind Newspeak, as practised in the totalitarian state envisioned in George Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“But instead of claiming like the apparatchiks around Orwell’s Big Brother, that 'Freedom is Slavery,' our departmental communications gurus seem to believe that 'Communication is Silence.' They are perversely dedicated to not communicating. This inclination has its origins in political pressure from the top, something that has worsened in the last decade.” 

As the Harper government becomes increasingly focused on domestic issues in preparing for the October 2015 election, Mr. Mulroney said ignoring China is not in our self-interest.

“Instead, we need to be vigilant in monitoring Chinese behaviour, frank in speaking out when misbehaviour is detected and innovative in designing measures for our own protection.”

In order to realize this goal, Mr. Mulroney said we need to approach our relationship with China with the kind of urgency and intensity that we brought to our mission in Afghanistan.

“The stakes are far, far higher with China, given how central it is to our security, prosperity and well-being. There is no excuse for not bringing a similar level of focus to what amounts to the major foreign policy challenge on our horizon.”

The Harper government's lack of focus on China was also evident in obtaining access to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), which Mr. Mulroney said was not automatic or easy for Canada. While our protected dairy industry is often held up as the main impediment, Mr. Mulroney said the real problem is that we're simply not considered to be a player anymore.

“Months before we secured agreement to join the TPP, I bumped into an old friend from the U.S. negotiating team, who was characteristically blunt, explaining to me that we simply don't show up enough to be taken seriously.”

While President Obama visited China in late 2009, calling for 100,000 American students to travel to China for studies over the next four years, nothing like this has been expressed by a Canadian leader. Mr. Mulroney said he suspects this is linked to a more general silence out of Ottawa about China.

 “Because almost any reference to China now invites controversy, it is judged better to remain silent on any related subject. This reflects the naive notion that we only seek to engage China because we support its policies or, at best, are blind to the risks associated with a closer partnership. It is hard to get across the idea that we need to study China more carefully precisely because is such a difficult mix of challenges and opportunities.”

Mr. Mulroney said Canada abandoned its dialogue on human rights with China following a 2006 report that pointed out many of the shortcomings of the process and there's been little, if any, progress on the issue since.

“Recently, Canada has tended to be both impatient and unimaginative in its approach to human rights engagement with China. We abandoned our only official dialogue mechanism and then failed to think creatively about the number and nature of levers still available to us, about how to deploy them in concerted ways, maximizing their effort.”

He added that China does give ground on human rights, albeit a little at a time. Consequently, he feels that human rights should always be on the agenda of the prime minister and the foreign minister; and we should not be seduced for a fast buck.

“For some reason, we have recently taken to claiming Canada's diplomacy is “economic.” Asserting that we're only looking to make a fast buck isn't a particularly warm or enticing message for our partners.  And it is exactly the wrong message to send to China. Serious countries engage across a wide range of important issues. Lesser nations have smaller ambitions.”

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