A closer look at “fraught” Canada-China relations

Retired diplomat and expert hostage negotiator Gar Pardy on Canada-China relations

This week saw two highly informative webinars exploring how to move beyond Canada’s extremely troubled relationship with China. Both webinars are now available for viewing and the links are provided below.

The first, hosted by the Group of 78, entitled The Global Ascendency of China, featured retired Canadian diplomat Gar Pardy, former head of Consular Affairs and a seasoned veteran of over one hundred successful hostage negotiations involving Canadians.

The virtual discussion was based on his latest book, China in a Changing World (October 2020). Pardy describes his motivation for writing the book thusly:

This book rose out of an effort to analyse how Canada could resolve the inter-related problems of the United States’ request for the extradition of Meng Wanzhou and the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor following their arbitrary detentions, arrests and indictments in China.

In addition to hoping that the book will assist the government of Canada in the return of the “two Michaels” through a negotiated exchange for the Huawei CFO in accordance with longstanding principles that Canada has applied in the past, Pardy goes on to write:

Moreover, the book provides ideas for how the world might adjust and adapt to a China that is influential and involved in most global current issues.

Turning to the webinar discussion and the broad topic of what Canada’s overarching foreign policy with China should be, bearing in mind the extremely hostile domestic political context, Gar Pardy began by providing some facts about Chinese progress that we seldom hear in the Canadian discourse:

I go back to 1978 … in terms of the economic statistics… 9 out of 10 Chinese were below the world … bank [poverty] standard…. Fast forward to today and 9 out of 10 Chinese are well-above that poverty level….

So you [must] start with the premise … that the people of China are pretty content and are probably pretty happy with the government that they have. It’s not one that we would accept by any means but you’ve got to have that understanding of China that, given the disasters … of the past, and the memory of many Chinese, that what they have today is something extraordinary.

Pardy goes on to describe a Chinese economic rise, beginning in the 1980s, with the full cooperation of the rest of the world, that now means 130 countries have China as their main trading partner.

He also contrasts the western disappointment — that Chinese economic liberalization did not lead also to its political liberalization — with the positive attitude of the majority of the Chinese population with their government, referenced above.

Hard line policies at what cost?

On the question of Canada-China relations, and in a tacit response to all those who want the Canadian government to take a universally “hard line” with China, Gar Pardy offered this advice:

The first rule of diplomacy is that you try to do less injury to yourself than to your opponent.

Pardy goes on to discuss:

  • the dangers of a U.S.-led containment strategy in relation to China — with the first casualty being the climate,
  • the need for broad solidarity, including in particular with Muslim countries, when addressing serious human rights violations such as those involving the Chinese Uyghurs, and
  • potential flashpoints in Hong Kong and especially Taiwan.

In the long term, Pardy believes:

it will take time; economic liberalism will ultimately affect the political system; travel, foreign education etc., has to have an effect… But the worst thing we can do is to gang up and try to impose this on them.

For the full, fascinating and illuminating conversation, click on the arrow below:

Panel discussion among top Canada-China experts

On Wednesday, 24 February 2021, the  Institute for Peace and Diplomacy hosted a webinar panel discussion featuring five of Canada’s top experts on Canada-China relations.  RI President Peggy Mason comments:

For anyone interested in an extremely thoughtful discussion of the perils and pitfalls in the current Canada-China relationship, and the potential, however “fraught”, for getting our relationship onto a more productive footing, this video is a must-see.

The lead-off speaker, the Honourable Yuen Pau Woo, an independent Senator representing British Colombia since 2016, after characterizing the atmosphere around Canada-China relations as “febrile”, goes on to say:

There is a deep desire for a rethinking of the Canada-China relationship…. The question is how, and in what form, this rethinking should take place….

Many people are not asking how do we improve Canada-China relations … but should we even seek to improve Canada-China relations? Or should we seek to “unwind” them…?

The foreign policy model of relations with a major power that can be “compartmentalized” to survive difficulties in one area while allowing other aspects of the relationship to go forward is being severely challenged.

In the senator’s view, we must put US-China strategic rivalry at the centre of discussions around Canada’s relations with China and, more broadly, China’s place in the world:

Clearly US-China strategic competition has the hallmarks of great power rivalry and it has attendant risks for each side as well as for third parties.

While downplayed by some, Senator Woo warns of the serious risks to the global economy from a “decoupling” of China and western economies:

The more likely reality [of such a decoupling] is that strategic competition between China and the United States will last decades and, as the contest deepens, the interests of each side will increasingly take precedence over the views and preferences of third countries, including Canada.

This, in turn, leaves Canada in the all-too-familiar position of seeking to carve out what freedom of manoeuvre that it can.

The key question posed by Senator Woo is:

What is China to us? Adversary, competitor, partner, enemy?

In seeking to answer that question — about a country that is soon to become the world’s largest economy — Senator Woo offers the concept of China as a global neighbour. He states:

Reflecting … about your neighbourhood, … you will know that there are neighbours that you like having around the block and [those] … you don’t like…. But the reality is that you have to live with them, you have to find a way to get along and to differentiate between different members of your community.

He goes on:

The idea of China as a global neighbour underscores the reality … that Canada is in proximity with China on so many fronts and in so many places, not just in the geographic sense, but on all the issues that matter to Canada, domestically and internationally.

Senator Woo further proposes that, on some China issues, Canada’s stance should be to “build a sturdy fence”, but, in other areas, maybe we should have “an open border”, and there will be yet other areas requiring something in between.

The “global neighbour” concept is elaborated further in a forthcoming article by Senator Woo in Canada’s pre-eminent journal of global policy analysis, the International Journal.

Other eminent panellists focus on the economic and academic aspects of the Canada-China relationship and there is (literally) a virtual view from Beijing.

As Peggy Mason stated at the outset, for anyone interested in hearing from top Canadian experts on the next steps in the Canada-China relationship, this video is an absolute must-see and can be accessed by clicking the arrow below:


Don’t Buy a Cold War with China: It’s a Bad Deal!

We end this week’s discussion of how best to relate to a rising China with an article by Charles Knight, Senior Fellow at the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), which appeared in updated form in the 21 January 2021 edition of Project on Defense Alternatives (comw.org).

Charles Knight’s conclusion merits inclusion in full:

It will not be an easy task to create a structure for peaceful relations with China. We must privilege cooperation, always seeking to identify common security interests. This task will require imagination, persistence, and focused attention.

Alternatively, a cold war framework for our relations with China will result in $300 to 500 billion additional annual U.S. security expenditures. It will divert Americans’ energies and resources away from many important social, economic, and environmental goals. The U.S. will defer many domestic investments.

Nations wise enough to opt-out of a cold war with China will emerge as winners, while those that sign on to the struggle will reap decline and perhaps the whirlwind of war.

Final Webinar in the February 2021 Arctic Security Series now available, featuring RI President Peggy Mason and leading Arctic expert Dr. Whitney Lackenbauer discussing conclusions and recommendations from the six-session event:

Photo credit: Wikimedia images (map of China)

Tags: Canada - China relations, Charles Knight, China in a Changing World, Dr. Whitney Lackenbauer, February 2021 Arctic Security Webinar Series, Gar Pardy, Group of 78, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor, Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), Senator the Honourable Yuen Pau Woo, the two Michaels