Canadian prime ministers have been coming to China for decades, trying to crack open this monster market of 1.2 billion people and do so while standing up for the Canadian values of human rights, rule of law and democracy.
It’s a delicate balancing act for any prime minister but may be made all the more tricky for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau because of the radically changed geo-political situation brought by an increasingly unilateralist and isolationist United States.
President Donald Trump wants no part of international climate change deals, he rejects the idea that the U.S. should be the world’s policeman and when it comes to trade, he’d sooner rip up global trading relationships in the belief that they do nothing but cheat the U.S. of jobs and prosperity.
And that leaves Canada negotiating its way in the world without the anchor of a firmly reliable American partner. It’s a Canada that is increasingly looking to China for its own future prosperity.
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“What we’re doing in China is part of our diversification agenda” International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told reporters in Anchorage, Alaska Sunday night during a refueling stop en route to Beijing. “China is becoming the largest economy in the world. It’s already our second largest trading partner.”
Canada is looking to China to step up and play more of a leadership role in solving global problems like climate change, a leadership role abdicated by Trump’s America.
“What’s the other option?” Trudeau’s innovation minister Navdeep Bains asked on The West Block with Vassy Kapelos on Sunday. “If we don’t engage, then it’s a huge missed opportunity. So we feel engagement is absolutely critical.”
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Trudeau arrived in China Sunday night for a week of meetings and events mostly focused on trade, investment, tourism and education. Bains, Champagne, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger have accompanied Trudeau on this trip.
McKenna has her own program while she’s here, part of which will be encourage China to continue to meet climate change targets and cut greenhouse gas emissions. With the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, China sees an opportunity to supplant U.S. leadership on this file.
When it comes to global security issues, Canada is looking for new opportunities to assist with global challenges and advance its own world view. And, once again, that means including China.
While Trump seems to think he can neutralize the North Korea threat with his Twitter account, Canada prefers old-fashioned diplomacy. So, while Trudeau is here, he will talk to Chinese leaders about the summit Canada will host next year on the North Korea threat.
“It’s our view that we, as a country, can play a leadership role with other countries, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China, to help find a diplomatic solution to those provocative actions that create an urgent global threat,” said Liberal MP Matt DeCourcey on The West Block.
DeCourcey is the parliamentary secretary to foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland. Freeland is not travelling with Trudeau this week in China.
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The tricky bit for Canada is to encourage China to be more active in the world but in a way that respects the multilateral, rules-based world order that Canada depends on.
But China has its own ideas about how the world order ought to be shaped. Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently consolidated and strengthened his power here, a signal that he and the ruling Communist Party of China have no intention of anything vaguely resembling democratic reforms.
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And while Canada works to increase “engagement” with a China that seems to have no interest in addressing Canadian human rights concerns, some believe Canada also has to keep in mind how the Trump administration might view the idea of its northern neighbour cozying up to a Communist dictatorship that it thinks already has too much of a commercial advantage over the U.S.
For the record, the Trudeau government says it will not approach the trade talks with China worried about what Trump thinks.
“We don’t take up policy cues from other jurisdictions,” Bains said. “We want to make sure we advance our national interests.”