Playing Doubles

Jennifer Jeffs is worried that the Prime Minister is playing China against the United States.
By: /
February 22, 2012
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On his recent trip to China, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told an audience of business leaders in Guangzhou, “We want to sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy. It’s that simple.” This statement echoes the Prime Minister’s disappointment with U.S. President Barack Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal and has hints of the aggression Finance Minister Jim Flaherty showed in November of last year, when he said that a recent postponement of a decision on Keystone by President Barack Obama “may mean we may have to move quickly to ensure we can sell our oil to Asia through British Columbia.” Canada should certainly be developing relations with China – particularly since we displayed consistent antipathy toward China in the past. But even to hint that Canada is developing relations with China in reaction against the U.S. is a tactical error.

First, tones of aggression or embitterment following the U.S. Keystone rejection risk making the trip’s accomplishments, such as the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement signed by Prime Minister Harper in Beijing last week, seem quaint. Second, unless Canada is prepared to take sides in a conflict, it should be careful not to frame escalating relations with one superpower as occurring at the expense of relations with another. Canadian international policy is most certainly not a zero-sum game.

Christopher Sands writes on this website that middle powers are susceptible to two foreign policy traps – excessive motivation by domestic politics and the pursuit of “the perception of relevance, rather than accomplishment.” Canada can avoid both of these traps by treating multilateralism as an avenue for accomplishment.  As the CIC’s GPS report points out, “Multilateralism is a means to an end… There is no prestige in merely being at the table. All that matters is results.”

The key, of course, is to ensure that we are not left out of multilateral meetings where we actually do want to participate. This often means managing the intersection of domestic and international political manoeuvring, and with a much stronger awareness of the international dimension than short-term domestic interests take into account. The Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership is a case in point. As one of CIC’s Rapid Responders, Laura Dawson describes in a recent CD Howe report that Canada is not welcome at the TPP table because our supply management system of certain agricultural products is widely considered highly protectionist. Meanwhile, Mexico, one of Canada’s NAFTA partners, is keen to get to  the table, increasing the attractiveness – and risks of exclusion – for Canada.  If Mexico joins the TPP and Canada does not, the growing trade and investment relationship between Canada and Mexico will slow down, weakening the fabric of a North American trilateralism, which is where Canada should focus its efforts. As two prominent North Americanists, Stephen Blank and Isabel Studer, have pointed out many times, Canadians don’t just trade with each other, they make things together.

A sure way to make multilateralism a source of both Canadian relevance and accomplishment is to use it as a means of finding solutions to global issues. Canada should encourage collaborative North American approaches not only to manufacturing, but also to climate change, clean-energy solutions and infrastructure improvement, among other issues that affect the three North American countries equally. If multilateralism is a means to an end, the most ambitious multilateralism is a means to solving pressing global challenges.

Photo courtesy Reuters.