Event Recap – Fifty Years with China: A Canadian Perspective

May 22, 2017

Since China has a major presence in the world today with an increasing voice and weight in international affairs, let alone its One Belt One Road project and its own initiative of the multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), it is hard for students of younger generations to imagine where China came from half a century ago. For his Critical Issues Confronting China seminar, Bernard Frolic, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Political Science at York University, brought a Canadian perspective to the vicissitudes of Canada’s relationship with China since World War II.

He reviewed Canada’s evolving role in dealing with China: from a pioneer in exploring possible economic relations with Beijing in the 1960s when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was basically closed to the western world, to a facilitator in bringing China into the modern world after 1970 when Canada established diplomatic relations with the PRC ahead of the U.S. Canada now finds itself confronting a dominant partner of near superpower status in all kinds of negotiations. Frolic also explained how the alternation between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party in charge of the Canadian government affected its approach and attitude toward China.

In 1943, Canada was an ally of China, then ruled by the KMT, in its formidable fight against Japan. After the KMT lost the civil war against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 and escaped to Taiwan, Canada, unlike the U.S. in this regard, did not have diplomatic representation in or a strategic commitment to Taiwan. After the PRC expelled about 1,000 Canadian missionaries from the mainland in 1950, Canada did not have active relations with the PRC. But Canada was interested in having trade relations with Beijing and looked for commercial engagement possibilities, which included exporting wheat to China in 1961.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1968-1984, except during June 1979-March 1980) of the Liberal Party, Canada intended to help China find its place in the modern world, but feared economic reprisals by the U.S., since trade with the U.S. was about 80 percent of Canada’s total trade, and Trudeau’s relationship with President Richard Nixon was awkward at best, if not openly adversarial. The changing tide in the Vietnam War and the Cold War in the late 1960s opened up the possibility of a new relationship with Beijing. After two years of negotiations, Canada established its embassy in Beijing in 1970.

Canada supported China’s accession into the UN, and agreed to “neither challenge nor endorse” Beijing’s proposition that Taiwan is part of China. Later, 35 countries followed this “Canadian formula” to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. Frolic’s later archival research at the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that it had taken the Chinese six months in 1969 to conclude that Canada was not acting as a surrogate of the U.S and that “Canada was a friend of China in the American backyard.” Canada was the first foreign country to set up development programs in China. Did Canada aim at changing China through a peaceful revolution, or at learning more about China through engagement? Canada leaned toward the latter. It played the role of mentoring and nurturing China into the world community.

In the 1980s, the Conservative Party replaced the Liberal Party in control of the Canadian government and offended China with criticism, following President Carter’s inclusion of human rights into American foreign policy. Canada set up a representative office in Taiwan in 1986 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984-1993). When the June 4th incident broke out in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, Canada allowed more than 10,000 Chinese students to live in Canada permanently. This became a watershed between Mulroney and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, and led to the deterioration of bilateral relations in 1991 when Chinese Premier Li Peng told the Canadian ambassador, “We don’t need you.”   

Canada realized its limited influence in transforming China, and began to try to find a balance between ideological pursuits and economic interests in its relations with the PRC in the 1990s. When the Liberal Party returned to office in 1993, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (1993-2003) said, “I can’t tell the Premier of Saskatchewan what to do. How can I tell the Chinese what to do?” Under Chrétien’s leadership, Canada’s relations with China mostly focused on trade and economics. As Chinese immigrants to Canada increased sharply in the late 1990s, the Canadians became wary of China and were concerned about unemployment, the high cost of living, as well as cyber espionage among many other problems. Canada steadily turned inward: realism and nationalism became dominant over idealism and internationalism.

In 2006, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper became Prime Minister (2006-2015). He advocated a principled foreign policy, highlighting the importance of the rule of law, human rights, religious freedom and other western values. He sidelined experienced China hands in the government, considering them closet Liberals. He employed a small group of people with no prior experience in China to make policies toward China, and ditched the strategic partnership deal with China, which had been reached just a year earlier by his predecessor Prime Minister Paul Martin (2003-2006). He received the Dalai Lama in his Parliament Hill office in 2007, not only as a religious leader but also as a political leader, unnecessarily irritating China and making any large deals with China unlikely to be finalized.     

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, facing a shrinking U.S. appetite for imports and President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project, which would bring oil from the oil sands in Alberta into the U.S., Harper was eager to open more markets for Canadian exports, especially oil and natural gas. He visited China in December 2009 and lifted up the bilateral relationship to a new stage by acknowledging and respecting each other’s values and core interests, and by downgrading human rights issues. That is, Harper reverted to the basic line of the past Liberals under the pressure from the Canadian business community and the next election. He eventually won the 2011 election with the support of a strong economic performance, which was in no small part related to Canada’s economic relations with China. Canada’s total trade with China has grown to almost $100 billion a year, with a large deficit accrued to Canada. In 2015, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau (Trudeau Junior) became Prime Minister and began a fresh approach toward China. In September 2016, he hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Ottawa and agreed to explore a possible free trade agreement with China, with the goal of doubling trade by 2025.

Although America is always Canada’s first and foremost concern, Frolic thought that Canada now has to “wait and see” what will happen to the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and how the trade disputes with the U.S. over Canadian exports of lumber and dairy products to the U.S. will be resolved. What is clear to him is that the Chinese have become more demanding in bilateral negotiations with Canada. The Chinese are very explicit in asking removal of barriers for Chinese investments into Canada and requesting that human rights concerns not be raised. At the same time, Canadian politicians have become more sensitive to public opinions. While the Canadians don’t like several aspects of China, such as Chinese SOEs, cheap exports and its human rights record, Canada has to come to terms with the fact that China is the second largest economy in the world and Canada’s second largest export market after all.