Vancouver Sun

Government quietly seeks closer ties with China


- PETER O’NEIL in Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is undertakin­g a major internal review of Canada’s relationsh­ip with China, cautiously considerin­g steps that include launching free trade negotiatio­ns and helping up to 100,000 Canadian students study there.

The idea of using a “youth engagement” strategy to boost Canada-China relations in the post-Stephen Harper era was suggested in one of many submission­s from experts and business groups advising the government during its major — though largely hush-hush — review of the relationsh­ip.

China-watchers say an increase in peopleto-people exchanges is being touted as a way to reverse negative polling trends reflecting Canadian attitudes about China, caused by everything from human rights abuses to Chinese investment in Alberta’s oilpatch and Vancouver’s real estate market.

“It’s great that we have 120,000 Chinese kids studying in Canada,” Minister of Internatio­nal Trade Chrystia Freeland told the Canada-China Business Council in a speech last week.

She then floated the idea that Canada — perhaps with the help of corporate sponsorshi­ps — try to match the ambition of Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong Foundation, a non-profit launched in 2012 to fulfil the president’s 2009 pledge to increase the number of American students in China by that number.

“Shouldn’t we have — OK, maybe 100,000 is too much but maybe not. Let’s have 100,000 Canadian kids going and studying in China. Those human connection­s are essential to build a real and robust and lasting relationsh­ip.”

Freeland also indicated that the federal government is likely to join the China-initiated US$100-billion Asian Infrastruc­ture Developmen­t Bank.

The Conservati­ve government allied itself with the U.S. and Japan in declining to join the institutio­n, which in December opened its vault to Asian countries looking for affordable loans to build critically needed infrastruc­ture. China’s founding partners include the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

“I’m not going to make any announceme­nts about that, but … we were very clear (in opposition) that we felt Canada failing to join the Asian Infrastruc­ture Bank as a founding member was a lost opportunit­y of the previous government.”


Freeland, however, was cautious while speaking to an audience that, in addition to members of the business and academic communitie­s, included a senior Chinese diplomat.

“A trade agreement in theory would be a great thing, but we need also to have a real community behind it,” she said.

Her tone reflects the government’s cautious approach as it seeks ways to ensure that not only the business community but ordinary Canadians will accept closer ties.

Trudeau barely mentioned China during the election campaign, didn’t include it in his mandate letter to Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, and ignored the world’s emerging superpower in the December throne speech.

The official government line suggests Ottawa wants to play down the significan­ce of its re-think on Canadian foreign policy in China after nine often-rocky years between the two countries under the Harper Conservati­ves.

The government has been under enormous pressure from corporate Canada and academics to raise Canada’s game in China, especially after Australia’s recent completion of a free-trade deal with its largest trading partner.

The Business Council of Canada and the Canada-China Business Council issued a report in January asserting that a Canada-China free trade deal would create 25,000 jobs and add almost $8 billion to the economy within 15 years.

But that pressure has to be weighed against political realities.

Hard feelings in Canada have solidified since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, according to polling data analyzed in Moving Froward: Issues in Canada-China Relations, a recently published collection of essays that is being widely circulated in Global Affairs Canada.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty Internatio­nal have reported worsening abuses inside China, while Beijing’s aggressive approach toward its territoria­l claims in the South China Sea have caused concern. And critics have warned that Xi is trying to develop a Mao-like personalit­y cult.

That means Trudeau, if he tries to embrace China, should assume a far cooler reaction from Canadians than he received during the recent glitzy state dinner in Washington.

“Xi is not nearly as popular as Obama in Canada,” according to Carleton University China-watcher Jeremy Paltiel. “While we have much to gain materially by improving relations, the optics are not as favourable.”

Trudeau’s one major foray into the matter occurred in mid-November at the G20 Summit in Turkey.

“I’m well aware we have an opportunit­y to set a fresh approach in our relationsh­ip right now,” he told Xi before a meeting.

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