When Pierre Elliott Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in June 1968, one of his prime foreign policy objectives was to establish diplomatic relations between Canada and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), and in the process contribute to the closer integration of China into the international world order. This initiative led to more than 30 years of flourishing Canada-China relations based on this early “friendship” and goodwill, an era that ended with the coming to power of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in early 2006. Will Pierre Trudeau’s son, 43-year-old Justin Trudeau, newly elected as prime minister last October, follow the family tradition and bring about a revitalization of Canada-China relations?
Pierre Trudeau first travelled to China in 1949 when it was in the grip of revolution. He returned again in 1960, after which he and friend Jacques Hebert wrote their book, Two Innocents in Red China. When Trudeau succeeded Lester Pearson as prime minister in 1968, part of his platform was to recognize the PRC and help bring it into world forums such as the United Nations, which it joined in 1971. These were heady early days for Canada-China relations, as Canadians discovered that they had an unknown hero in China, the Canadian Communist Norman Bethune immortalized in Chairman Mao Zedong writings, and as the two countries began exchanges of delegations in every area, from culture to ocean science to geology.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and China on October 13, 1970, marked an important breakthrough since, among Western countries, only Britain (which technically had never broken off relations with Beijing), Switzerland, the Nordics and France (which had recognized the PRC in 1964) maintained an embassy in Beijing. In the aftermath of Canadian recognition the floodgates opened and many other countries, from Australia to Japan to Germany and beyond, moved to recognize the PRC using the “Canadian formula” with respect to the mainland’s claims to Taiwan. That issue had been the sticking point in over 14 rounds of negotiations between Canadian and Chinese officials in Stockholm. China insisted that the communiqué recognize its claim to Taiwan. Canada was unwilling to do so. The acceptable compromise formula finally adopted was for China to state its claim, and for Canada to acknowledge (Canada “takes note of”) the Chinese position without endorsing or denying it.
At this time, the U.S. too was carefully evaluating how to approach China while trying to extricate itself from the Vietnam quagmire. Canadian recognition no doubt helped socialize the idea in North America of normalizing relations with mainland China, but Trudeau never had to face the kind of Taiwan lobby that Richard Nixon faced. Nixon’s manoeuver of sending Henry Kissinger to Beijing in 1971 to negotiate with the senior Chinese leadership is well known. Both countries established “Liaison Offices” in their respective capitals in 1973. Finally, on January 1, 1979, the U.S. broke off relations with Taiwan and formally established diplomatic relations with China.
The normalization of relations between the PRC and most of the developed world was part of China’s return to the world stage, and the remarkable economic growth story that began with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Canada-China relations, like those of many other countries’ relations with China, enjoyed steady growth in the ensuing years, interrupted briefly in 1989-90 by the events in Tiananmen Square, but accelerating again after China joined the WTO in 2001. In early 2006, however, after the Conservative government of Stephen Harper came to power in Ottawa, Canada-China relations became a casualty of that change of government.
For their first few years in power the Conservatives showed little interest in developing Canada’s relations with China and gave the relationship little priority. China was looked at primarily through the lens of human rights issues, and there seemed to be suspicion of Chinese motives in the investment field, where state-owned CNOOC made a $15 billion bid for the Canadian oil company Nexen. (The bid was ultimately approved by Canada’s foreign investment review agency, but only after much debate and a statement by the Harper government that any further such investments by state-owned firms in the oil sector would be approved only on an “exceptional basis.”)
Harper did not find it convenient to travel to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. Later in their mandate, however, the Conservatives changed course somewhat, and Harper found time to visit China. Two pandas, a sure sign of diplomatic success, were secured for the Toronto Zoo, a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA) was signed with China, and a Canada-China Economic Complementarities Study was launched. That study, however, has sat on the shelf since 2012 and Canada this year passed on the opportunity to join Beijing’s new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Enter Justin Trudeau in 2015. Relations with China were not a significant part of Trudeau’s campaign, but doing things differently certainly was. This mandate for change ran the gamut from domestic economic and political reform measures to Canada’s role in the world. No sooner had Trudeau taken office than he was off to the G20 Summit in Turkey and the APEC Summit in Manila where among the first leaders he met was Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reaching back to the legacy of Trudeau’s father Pierre, Xi is reported to have commented that Trudeau père had “extraordinary political vision” that China would always remember. Trudeau fils indicated that Canada looked forward to working with China on building economic, political and cultural ties. He invited Xi to visit Canada, and a trip to China by Trudeau may also be in the offing.
Although the Liberals are intent on conveying to the world that Canada has turned a page (its position on climate change is a good example), in fact when it comes to China Trudeau can build on some solid work done by the Conservatives in the latter years of their mandate. Much of the basic infrastructure has been put in place – Canada has approved destination status for Chinese tourists, it has a designated RMB exchange hub and a dialogue mechanism for foreign ministers and economic senior officials, and the bilateral investment agreement is now in force. However, in 2005 during the waning days of the previous Liberal government then-Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Ottawa and the two countries agreed to build a strategic partnership. Under the succeeding Conservatives, no strategic plan was ever developed. Both sides now have the opportunity to give real meaning to that agreement. For example, China has called for using the 2012 Economic Complementarities study to lead to a start of negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement, while it would be timely for Canada to reconsider its decision to decline China’s invitation to join the AIIB.
With a new government and a new prime minister in Ottawa, experienced policy commentators see an opportunity to redirect the future of Canada’s relations with China. Professors Paul Evans at UBC and Wendy Dobson at the University of Toronto have called for a new approach to China that would build on the complementarity of the Chinese and Canadian economies, while supporting “Canadian” (i.e. democratic) values. This new approach would also see Canada play a more proactive middle-power role in the Asia-Pacific and make relations with China and Asia a strategic priority, along the lines of the commitment made by Australia. Above all, this new approach would recognize China for what it is rather than what Canada would like it to be and will accept that while China will change, it will change at its own pace and in its own way rather than according to any script written in the West.
Will Justin Trudeau pick up on the legacy of his father and make a new relationship with a resurgent China one of his signature foreign policy pillars? Time will tell, but there is a wellspring of goodwill to be tapped, a new young sheriff in town, and bilateral opportunities for both Canada and China to renew the relationship if they wish.
This piece first appeared on The Diplomat.