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Rethinking our relationship with China

Canada must face the fact that China is a strategic rival.

By: /
17 March, 2021
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the G20 Summit on September 4, 2016 in Hangzhou, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Canada’s relationship with China is in an abysmal state. The slide began in December 2018, when Canada arrested Chinese tech giant Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who faces fraud charges in the United States. China retaliated with the arbitrary arrest and continued detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and by targeting Canadian exports. Ottawa has appeared reluctant to anger China further by, for example, banning Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks, but it has criticized Beijing for crushing dissent and freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Last month, a majority of Canadian MPs also voted to label China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the country as genocide — although cabinet abstained. Canadian public opinion about China has plummeted.

These events have dismantled many of the assumptions that for decades underpinned Canada’s approach to China. It’s now clear that trade and investment with China won’t transform it into a democratic country, nor will it make China a status-quo superpower that cooperates with other nations to support and strengthen the post-war liberal international order. China once seemed to offer only opportunity for Canada. It now presents risks and reasons for caution.

Canada therefore needs a strategy to deal with China as it is, not how we would like it to be. But this is easier to say (and demand) than do. China is a unique challenge to both Canada and the international order on which is relies.   

China as a rival power

Any new China approach by Canada must be grounded in the reality that China directly challenges Canada and its interests in a number of ways, including economically (by using state-controlled businesses to distort markets); politically (by using economic power to influence decision making in targeted states); and strategically (by re-organizing global relations to its advantage). China is not simply a competitor, which implies competing within a system of agreed-upon rules, nor is it an enemy, intent on destroying the West. It does want to reconstitute global relations and networks to its advantage and make other states dependent and pliant. China’s tactics include positioning itself as a global leader in tackling the world’s most pressing challenges, including climate change and the pandemic recovery. China is also makings itself an indispensable part of the emerging global economy through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship project of investment and infrastructure to further economic integration within and between various regions.

“It remains to be seen whether China’s efforts to make the world safe for its regime and conducive to its goals means making it unsafe for democracy and liberalism in general.”

China, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is not trying to impose and promote its own particular style of governance outside China. But it remains to be seen whether its efforts to make the world safe for its regime and conducive to its goals means making it unsafe for democracy and liberalism in general. It is clear, however, that China sees the United States and its network of allies and close partners, including Canada, as obstacles that must be marginalized to allow it greater maneuverability in the world.

Recalibrating the relationship

Canada’s approach to China should not be based on a neat demarcation of issues we can and cannot cooperate on. Rather, in all aspects of our relationship, Canadian leaders must be cognisant of how China is using these relations to serve its interests, which in many cases weaken our own. This presents Canada with three dilemmas.

First, Canada should re-evaluate how it treats Chinese non-state actors, including everything and everyone one from private companies to exchange students. Because China can compel its citizens, public institutions or companies to act on its behalf, it’s risky for countries like Canada to assume private entities and people aren’t working to advance the interests of the Chinese state. Caution must be exercised in this regard to avoid fear-mongering stereotypes that portray all Chinese citizens, and Chinese Canadians, as agents of Beijing. Canada must also take care not to unnecessarily stifle projects that benefit Canada. Strategy should instead be based on cordoning off certain economic sectors and areas of research, specifically those with military applications. Given the frequent overlap between national security and many other aspects of the economy, this will not be easy.

Second, Canada must wrestle with the question of when it should exclude China from our economy and when it should welcome and compete with it. There are growing calls to ban Chinese companies from some Canadian technological, economic and geographic sectors — such as 5G networks and the Arctic. However, while a strategy of exclusion may prevent some security risks, it does not help solve the problem of Canada’s lack of infrastructure in the Arctic, for example, or its need to shift to a green economy. The strategy should not be completely cutting off investment from China but ensuring an environment which precludes China’s monopoly over it.

Third, when dealing with China, Canada must decide when to cooperate with other nations and when to strike out on its own. Acting in concert with allies, and through multilateral bodies such as the G7, allows participating nations to coordinate policy and present China with a united front. But this takes work and compromise to ensure members truly are on the same page and will not allow China to drive wedges between them. How to determine the balance between solidarity and strategic autonomy is difficult. While exact policy alignment is unrealistic, there does need to be some level of coordination and a broad strategy between cooperating states. This will force Canada to make tough choices and compromises regarding its relations with allies and other rising powers such as India.

Climate change

Where does climate change fit in all of this? It is the primary reason why Canada should continue to engage with China. Working with China on this matter is vital given its size and power. However, climate change should be treated like other facets of our relationship with China. It is an area for both cooperation and competition. Climate change is not simply about treaties. It is about transforming the way people live. Those who gain dominance in green technologies and investments will be those who determine how this transformation takes place, with all the associated political power stemming from that. As a result, we should work with China on climate technologies but try to prevent it from dominating the sector.

Understanding the challenge

Canada needs to cooperate with China in some areas to ensure global stability, but we also need to accept the nature of the regime and the goals it is pursuing: China wants to undermine the West and place itself at the centre of an altered world. It’s unlikely Canada can change that. What Canada can do is influence how China pursues these goals. China is not an endlessly growing and unstoppable superpower. It has real limitations (including an ageing population, environmental pollution, economic slowdown, and fear of regime survival in the face of any domestic dissent or foreign criticism of its behaviour). And its belligerence has spurred other powers, specifically in Asia, to work with the United States and other western countries against it.

While the Canada–China relationship is asymmetrical, with Canada the significantly smaller player, concern about China’s power over us is overblown. We are not overly reliant on China for trade, and we have strong relations with many states that are beginning to coordinate against Chinese assertiveness. Trying to “box in” China, as the West tried to do to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, will not work given China’s reach and influence. But Canada and its allies are not helpless before China either. A return to greater coordination and cooperation with close, like-minded partners against a common strategic rival is required.

Adam P. MacDonald is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Dalhousie University and a Canadian International Council research fellow.

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