A more sophisticated engagement with China

Charles Burton, associate professor, Political Science wrote an opinion piece about Canada/China relations that appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun and the Halifax Chronicle Herald on Dec. 1.  An excerpt is below.

He is also a former diplomat at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

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“All the federal political parties agree that Canada’s priorities with regard to China are, first, to promote our prosperity through trade and investment between the countries and, second, to encourage high-quality Chinese immigrants to move here.

We also want to collaborate with China in areas of concern such as fair trade, environmental sustainability, the spread of communicable diseases, respect for human rights, transnational crime and dozens of other issues that arise in a rapidly globalizing world. There is little room for partisan disagreement on any of this.

Moreover, people of all political stripes are concerned by reports of human-rights abuses in China. Canadians stand for freedom of expression, the right to religious and political freedom and the right to private property free from expropriation through corrupt deals. Even a “sensitive” political initiative such as extending honorary Canadian citizenship to the Dalai Lama was passed unanimously in the House of Commons.

Internationally, Beijing’s support for repressive and dangerous regimes in Myanmar, Sudan, North Korea, Zimbabwe and other places is worrying, and Canada would like to persuade China of the benefits of becoming a more responsible citizen in the international community.

So whoever forms the next government in Ottawa will probably continue to respect Canada’s fundamental interests in its relations with China. The main factor distinguishing the Liberals from the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois is in the area of human rights.

Liberals support the “quiet diplomacy” adopted by Jean Chrétien, who initiated a government-to-government secret dialogue on human rights in 1997. Beijing’s standard response to Canadian concerns about human-rights abuses is that China hopes to eventually become democratic with an impartial and independent judiciary, but developmental and cultural factors make this impossible for the time being.

This line of argument wears thinner as the years go by and reports continue unabated of arbitrary arrest, torture and repression, including pervasive Internet censorship.

In 2006, the Conservatives suspended this dialogue because it was seen as ineffective in furthering human rights in China. An important consideration is the concern that Ottawa’s approach may correlate to our realization of Canadian economic interests in China. If Canada is vocal on human rights, does this have a negative impact on our ability to sell Canadian products in China?

It is fair to conclude that “quiet diplomacy” with China has not benefited Canada economically. Over the decade since Ottawa began its annual secret dialogue with Beijing as the primary mode of engaging China over human-rights violations, the country’s share of Chinese imports dropped by a third.

Our trade imbalance with China should be a major cause for concern. According to Industry Canada statistics, Canadian merchandise exports to China in 2008 amounted to $10.1-billion, but imports were valued at $42.6-billion. That’s a huge trade deficit, about 4 to 1.

In sharp contrast, Australia had a ratio of 1.53 to 1 this year, thanks to 45-per-cent growth in its exports to China over the past year compared with only 19.5-per-cent growth in imports.

Moreover, according to a report in The Globe and Mail last month, 130,000 Chinese are studying in Australia, compared with 42,000 in Canada.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to visit Beijing this week, we need a major reboot of the way Canada engages China. Most of the younger Chinese diplomats in Canada have near-fluency in English, and many have graduate degrees from universities in Canada, the United States, Australia or Britain. We need to be sending comparably qualified Canadians to China, preferably people who have done advanced study there. But we are not doing that.

We need to do a major government-led overhaul of how Canada does its trade promotion in China. We need much more sophisticated engagement in the Chinese political system in general.”

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