Cooperating with China on climate

Canada’s former ambassador to Beijing on why Canada should selectively engage with China — despite its imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

By: /
February 17, 2021
A masked couple walk through smog-filled Shanghai, China, on Dec. 24, 2020. Canada’s former ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques argues Canada should cooperate with China on environmental issues. Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Canada’s relation with China came crashing down in December 2018 following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Chinese tech giant Huawei. China has punished us by detaining Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in harsh conditions, blocking our exports of canola, peas and pork, cancelling contracts and stopping the joint development of a vaccine against COVID-19. But we must plan for the day when the present crisis will end.

Despite the poor state of bilateral relations today, Canada is still well perceived by many people in China for the work of Dr. Norman Bethune during the anti-Japanese war; the sale of wheat to China by the John Diefenbaker government in the early 1960s, after Chairman Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward starved millions to death; and Canada’s diplomatic recognition of China under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1970. The Canadian International Development Agency also launched a successful development assistance program in the 1980s, whose outcomes included the training of Chinese engineers, lawyers and judges. That training led to numerous cooperation agreements in the education sector, with the result that some 190,000 Chinese students were studying in Canada at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, more than 700,000 Chinese visited Canada, the second largest source of overseas tourists.

The question for Canada is whether it can, and should, build on this foundation while Kovrig and Spavor languish in a Chinese prison and diplomatic ties are more strained than they have been in decades.

Any cooperation is undoubtedly made more difficult by the Xi Jinping’s ascension to the position of general secretary of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. As New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof has puts, “Xi Jinping is a reckless, over-confident, risk-taking bully … who has been oppressive in Hong Kong, genocidal in the Xinjiang region, obdurate on trade, ruthless on human rights and insincere on everything.”

“We have to distinguish between the corrupt regime of Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.”

While it is tempting to see China as monolith, we have to distinguish between the corrupt regime of Xi and the Chinese people. Many Chinese officials and intellectuals are concerned about the policies that he has put in place and the assertiveness and aggressiveness that has marked China’s foreign policy.

However, having been at the receiving end of Xi’s vengeance, we need to pursue a much more selective engagement strategy with China. The basis for our relations should be the protection of our values — freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, democratic principles — and the promotion of our interests. It could help to sustain those who oppose Xi in China if we expose Chinese people to how we manage our justice system, the working of a political democratic system and how an open press keeps politicians honest.

One way to do this is by continuing to welcome Chinese students and visitors, including, for example, Chinese judges coming to Canada to study law at Canadian universities. This could help build a system in China in which foreign investors and exporters believe their legal rights are protected. China is an important market with a growing middle class. It will remain of interest to Canadian businesspeople for the foreseeable future.

In parallel, we should continue to work with like-minded countries to put pressure on China to free the two Michaels and to reinforce the multilateral system. The message should be clear: We are ready for a constructive engagement with China as long as it respects international laws and treaties and stops acting as a bully when a country does not follow its diktats. If not, China must know there will be a price to pay.

There are other areas where collaboration with China is in Canada’s interest. One is fentanyl smuggling, which has resulted in a health crisis in many of our large cities. Of course, China will want in exchange our support to track down and return economic fugitives; this can be done by controlling very strictly visits by Chinese inspectors.

At the same time, we have to devote more attention to attempts by Chinese officials, including activities run by the United Front Work Department, to interfere in Canadian politics or among Canadians of Chinese origin. In this regard, the Canadian government should seek inspiration from laws adopted in Australia in recent years to counter such activities — including, for example, by banning covert activities on behalf of foreign states that are designed to influence domestic politics.

The reality is that China’s importance in resolving issues of global concern means that Canada cannot cease engagement. But we need to be strategic about where that engagement takes place. Protecting the environment and fighting climate change are perhaps the most obvious areas in which Canada and China should cooperate.

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When it comes to the environment, China is a land of paradox and contradictions. It is the biggest consumer of coal in the world and is responsible for 28 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also the country that has invested the most in renewable technology. Over the last decade, China has added 36 per cent of the world’s total new renewable generation capacity (wind and solar). In 2019, renewable energy represented about 10 per cent of China’s power generation. There is a major push in the transportation sector toward electric and fuel-cell vehicles. Half of the world’s electric passenger vehicles are found in China. China understands the risks associated with climate change from first-hand experience. Desertification is difficult to control in the north of the country, and agricultural production is becoming more challenging, with flooding or a lack of water in many regions.

Canada has a long history of cooperating with China on environmental issues, beginning with its development assistance program in the 1980s. Among key accomplishments since then, Canada and China collaborated on some 21 projects, with Canada contributing $153 million to a wide array of energy and environmental initiatives. Additional projects in the area of governance, agriculture and community participation also contributed to improved environmental sustainability in China.

This collaboration led to the creation of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, which has facilitated high-level policy exchange since its inception in 1992. The council, co-chaired by China’s minister of ecology and environment and Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, sponsors research by internationally recognized experts. Cooperation continued over the years with a program of collaborative research on climate change and sustainable energy, among other joint projects. Until December 2018, Canada occupied a unique space within the Chinese government on environmental issues.

Those cooperative ties shouldn’t be abandoned. Canada and China must continue to engage on environmental protection and in the fight against climate change. Opportunities exist for Ottawa and Beijing to do so.

Given the large land mass and diversity of flora and fauna in both countries, Canada and China could jointly take leadership roles in elevating international biodiversity diplomacy at the UN’s Convention on Biodiversity conference that will be held later this year in Kunming, China. The Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat is situated in Montreal, and Canada has long been a knowledge centre on biodiversity issues. With China emerging as a leader, there are opportunities for both countries to explore new common ground. Such collaboration might also offer an opportunity to convince China to crack down on the illegal global wildlife trade.

Canada, which has announced its commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, is embarking on a difficult but cleaner path. There is much that Canada and China can learn from each other. Canadian clean-tech and uranium suppliers are already active in the Chinese market. As China emerges as a global leader in renewable technologies, transfer of that technology may start to flow from East to West.

The scale of the challenges posed to the world by climate change and environmental degradation are such that even states at serious odd with each other must find ways to collaborate. Over the decades, Canada and China have built a level of mutual trust which should not be squandered. The global community needs Canada and China to work together to bring about the necessary political, economic and social transformations required to safeguard our planet. There are no solutions to global environmental challenges without China’s participation.