Commentary from Colin Robertson

Canadian business will benefit from Trudeau’s China trip

by Colin Robertson

Globe and Mail
December 5, 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's China trip may not have netted the expected free-trade talks, but Canadians should be satisfied on several fronts.

First, the institutional framework is strengthened.

Critics discount this as more bureaucratic jibber-jabber, but in China – as business has painfully learned – it's the mandarins who make things happen. Last year the prime ministers of Canada and China initiated regular annual meetings. Now, there will be regular meetings of ministers of the environment and energy.

Second, there will be more trade.

Sales of uranium (good for Saskatchewan) and beef and pork (good for Western Canada) will be expedited. Premier Kathleen Wynne has just returned with $1.9-billion in deals that will generate an estimated 2,100 jobs in Ontario.

A crosswalk between climate and clean energy has been created. This should work to Canada's advantage both commercially as well as in research and development, given the Chinese lead in innovation in renewable energies, especially solar.

Third, the people-to-people exchanges are significantly enhanced.

Chinese tourism – more than half a million visitors last year – has taken off. It's growing annually at double-digits. More direct flights to Calgary and Montreal, as well as Toronto and Vancouver, are coming from 11 Chinese cities, and we are opening seven additional visa centres. During a visit to Beijing last month, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen declared we could "easily double or triple or quadruple the numbers." China has designated Canada as the preferred travel location for 2018.

Where once it was the Japanese who skied Banff and Whistler, it will now be wealthy Chinese. Hoteliers had better be sure there is a kettle stocked with Chinese teas in every room and that their feng shui is right.

Tourism begets foreign students as well as trade and investment. China is already our largest source of foreign students, although – where we once led – in recent years Australia has done the better job of attracting Chinese students.

But even with these developments, the China relationship is always going to be tricky. Its leadership has a different conception of human rights and the rule of law. China is an authoritarian state. Authority rests with the Chinese Communist Party and its survival comes first.

When things get tough, as we saw in Tiananmen Square, the People's Liberation Army cracks heads. Information does not flow freely and, as Facebook, Google and earlier media companies have learned, you either play by their rules or you don't do business. That's the way it is.

Canadians have a tendency to discount our assets when dealing with China. As Paul Evans recounts in Engaging China, that we were "somewhat independent" and could play a middle power role in bringing China in from the cold were major factors in China's decision to accept Pierre Trudeau's invitation to open relations with Canada in 1971.

Legitimacy still matters for China, and closer relations with Canada gives it that. Try as it might, and it did try hard, especially in the later years, the government of Stephen Harper could never really come to terms with it.

The Trudeau government doesn't have the anti-communist ideological baggage that confounded its predecessors. Instead, its progressive values – labour, environment, gender equality, Indigenous rights – bolster Canada's position in the Western democratic pantheon. It is a strength, even if the Chinese don't like it. Their first instinct will be to bully us into submission.

We need to stand up for our progressive values. But they also need pragmatic application if they are to have any effect. Finding that balance is an art, not a science. In his dealings with foreign leaders, Mr. Trudeau demonstrates a high degree of emotional intelligence. He will need it when dealing with China's leadership.

The Trudeau trip to China moved the yardsticks. Maybe no China free-trade deal now, but all in all, not a bad haul – and the promise of more to come.

When dealing with the Chinese, strategic patience counts. The Chinese measure progress in centuries rather than days or months. Nor should we discount standing firm on our progressive values. The Chinese may not like it, but they respect conviction.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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