Seven hours to go before the polls open for what has been called the “worst ever” election.
I refer, of course, to the 40th Canadian General Election, an event so momentous as to have been entirely ignored outside of Canada, and greeted with spiteful indifference within.
But questionable election call aside, it seemed a good opportunity for me, as a conscientious voter, to examine the various parties’ platforms relating to China.
Canada has long enjoyed good relations with China – in 1998, former Premier Zhu Rongji called Canada China’s “best friend in the world,” and in 2005 Prime Minster Paul Martin and President Hu Jintao issued a declaration of a “strategic partnership” between Canada and China.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to examine at the moment. The lack of foreign policy discussion within Canada indicates that it – let alone China policy – is not an issue of concern to voters or the parties. That apathy is depressing, if unsurprising: The previous election in 2006 was similarly light on the rest of the world.
It’s not just the elections. Despite those grand pronouncements by Zhu, Hu and Martin, Canada still lacked a comprehensive China strategy when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected in 2006. That, anyway, is the argument of Paul Evans, a professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, in “Canada, meet Global China.“
Rather than continue the Liberals’ work, however, Harper’s government has tried to take on a more combative tone in its dealings with Beijing. In an article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal (“Responding to Global China: Getting the Balance Right” – subscription required), Evans calls this approach “cool politics, warm economics.”
The idea is that Canada can continue to pursue business opportunities on the one hand, while Ottawa gives Beijing a stern talking-to on human rights, Tibet, Taiwan and any number of other issues guaranteed to please domestic voters on the other.
This has allowed Harper to tell Canadians he’s not afraid to talk tough with Hu. After their first meeting – a quick, five-minute chat at an APEC summit in 2006, Harper had this to say:
We’ve had very frank discussions with a wide range of leaders, including although it was not a very long discussion, a very frank discussion with President Hu of China – a distinct impression, if I may say that, that the Chinese aren’t used to that from a Canadian government, but I can’t speak for them.
The patent ridiculousness of Canada attempting to lecture China aside, this is a dangerous path for Canada to blindly walk down. Evans notes that there is a growing acceptance within the Conservative Party of views such as those espoused by Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Queen’s University.
Also in the CFPJ (“Reawakening Canada’s China Policy,” also not for free), Gilley begins by arguing that Canada’s recognition of Beijing in 1970 was a betrayal of its spirit of “liberal internationalism.” He then goes on to suggest that Canada set up an agency to directly push for “democratic transitions” around the world, “with the independence necessary to support real change in China.”
Harper giving Hu a talking-to may be embarrassing, but it’s ultimately little more than a sorry joke. Undermining Chinese sovereignty – essentially what Gilley is proposing – is rather more serious.
“Whatever the estimated dollar costs,” Evans writes, “it is important to underscore that the fallout would be multi-dimensional and not easily captured in the rise and fall of trade balances.”
There may have been a time for such a challenge, but it is long since gone. Harper has already caused some concern as the head of a minority government. If polls over the weekend are correct and Canada elects a Conservative majority, I can only hope that Harper’s government realizes the importance of good relations with China – not just for Canadian businesses, but because Canada is most persuasive when leading by example.