Teeter-Tottering Between Contending Perceptions of China

David Dyment on why the country represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Canada.
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March 14, 2013
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This week the National Peopleʼs Congress will confirm the change in Chinese leadership announced during Novemberʼs National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

As we ponder this transition, we teeter-totter between the perceptions that China is either a challenge or an opportunity. It is both, and a more mature approach suggests we consider the elements of our relationship in their entirety.

While Chinaʼs political modernization is not keeping pace with its economic development, and all that it entails, the darker vision of China in a war for treasure without the loss of blood is extreme.

It is too easy to see China as either a threat or an opportunity. It is a global force we must lean into, participating in its growth and contributing to its evolution.

Chinaʼs emergence in the international system is driven by its rapid economic development, growing wealth, and massive population. Increasingly, the worldʼs problems pass through Beijing.

Canadians are aware of a dizzyingly ascendant China. The tempo of our trade with China over the last eight years has grown 10 times faster than our trade with the rest of the world. Chinaʼs purchase of Nexen, for more than $15 billion, was the largest foreign acquisition in its history. This week, we learn BlackBerry is in the sights of Chinese electronics maker Lenovo.

The larger context of Chinaʼs development is that in the last two decades more than 300 million Chinese have moved from a peasant existence of poverty to greater wealth and opportunity, so that recently Chinaʼs population has become more urban than rural.

This is the trajectory taken earlier by the West. And it is one that requires massive amounts of building, especially for the most populous country on earth.

At the moment China is consuming 53 per cent of the worldʼs cement, and 47 per cent of the worldʼs iron ore and coal. Itʼs doing this while growing rich. Today it has foreign currency reserves of more than $3 trillion US, the largest in the world.

And if the future is about education, perhaps most remarkably of all, in the last 15 years it has moved from the 14th country to the second in the number of published scientific articles.

In a sense, China is imposing itself on us, challenging of us to respond.

A step in responding, will take place in Ottawa on March 22 when the Canadian International Council hosts the Canada-China Opportunities in Transition conference at the Chateau Laurier, with gavel-to-gavel coverage by CPAC.

With the goal of going beyond the teeter-tottering of our contending perceptions of China, the conference will examine our evolving relations with our second-largest trading partner. Panels will cover the potential of the two countries as strategic partners, the energy sector, security challenges, and managing our future relationship.

The gathering will look at the opportunities and challenges from a Canadian perspective, but also with significant Chinese participation. A panellist from China is on each of the four panels.

Our track-two Chinese partner in working to foster better understanding and relations, is the Chinese Peopleʼs Institute of Foreign Affairs. Lu Shumin, the vice president of the institute, will lead the delegation from China to the conference. Chinaʼs ambassador to Canada from 2005 to 2008, he will kick off the conference as the first keynote speaker.

This undertaking is part of a process that Paul Evans, a professor of Asian affairs at the University of British Columbia, describes as “providing a substructure to the relationship,” which includes the joint Canada-China Economic Complementarities Study released by the two governments six months ago.

Perhaps the Canadian International Council in Ottawa is participating in a missionary drive, with deep roots in Canada, to change China by engaging it. With almost 40 Chinese for every Canadian, such an impulse is likely quixotic.

Yet at the end of the day, or at least at the end of March 22, perhaps the conference will have contributed to a Canadian calling of middle-power-bridge-builder, going beyond our contending perspectives.

It will participate in the project of engaging China so that it adopts as smoothly as possible the norms that Canada and others have worked so tirelessly to advance in the post-war era. The conference is part of a worldwide conversation with China, with the objectives of building understanding, overcoming challenges, and fostering opportunities.

David Dyment is the chair of the Canada-China Opportunities in Transition conference being organized by the National Capital Branch of the Canadian International Council.