Wanted: A Coherent China Policy

Paul Evans on the strategic incoherence of Canada's “principled" foreign policy approach to China.
By: /
May 7, 2014
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Professor of Asian and trans-Pacific international relations at the University of British Columbia

Open fissures in Cabinet and the Conservative caucus reveal the precarious and conflicted foundation of the Harper government’s China policy. This is not small a matter. China is already the largest or second largest economy in the world (depending on whether the unit of measure is PPP), the largest trading partner of virtually every country in Asia, the second largest trading partner for every country in North America, and a key player in virtually every major global issue of interest to Canada, including the unfolding drama in the Ukraine. 

Getting China policy right is not easy for any government, anywhere, at any time. Even during the period between Pierre Trudeau’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1970 and Paul Martin’s strategic partnership in 2005, there were internal divisions and debates that made China and Canada’s policy toward China recurrently controversial, especially in the immediate aftermath of the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yet both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments stuck close to an engagement policy anchored in economic and geo-political ambitions and the long-term bet that closer bilateral connections on a full range of issues was consistent with Canadian interests and values. 

Engaging China was partly about seeking commercial advantage and opening China to international institutions and practices. It was also conceived as a moral enterprise for changing China or at least influencing its behaviour. This missionary impulse—faith-based and more recently in secular form—has had a deep influence on Canadians, including its policy makers, for several generations and is likely to continue into the future.  

The Harper government came to power in 2006 with a very different approach in mind. Holding a moral compass that defined the promotion of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law at the core of its “principled” foreign policy, “cool politics, warm economics” was the defining element of its first three years. The approach produced a near-disaster in bilateral relations and, equally important from the perspective of party strategists, did not advance Conservative electoral objectives.

PM Stephen Harper’s first visit to China in 2009 symbolized a significant, if never explained, shift back toward the engagement rhetoric of earlier governments with a heavy emphasis on commercial relations. Over the next three years the two governments completed several agreements in areas including tourism and nuclear cooperation. It also finalized an economic complementarities study that often precedes free trade negotiations. Harper’s February 2012 visit emphasized the prospects for energy exports and attracting major Chinese investments in Canada.  

By the autumn of 2012, it was clear that there was significant resistance inside the Party and in parts of the country around the sale of Nexen to the Chinese National Overseas Oil Corporation and the signing of the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement. The sale was eventually approved, but with a variety of conditions imposed on future investments by State Owned Enterprises. The FIPPA has still not been ratified while Chinese investment in Canada has declined precipitously.

The reasons for the Conservative government’s quandary go well beyond the economic, commercial, and legal merits of individual transactions. They lie in the heart of the its “principled” foreign policy and the views of a significant segment of the conservative coalition that China is, to borrow the words of several Conservative MPs and senior advisors, “a godless totalitarian country with nuclear weapons aimed at us.” China is portrayed as a combination of competitor, threat, rival, and above all a non-democratic, Communist country, a categorical opponent, and categorical “other.”  

In explaining Conservative policy, Jason Kenny, who initially coined the phrase “principled engagement,” has recently lauded its “balance.” John Ibbitson in his thoughtful analysis of the revolution in Canadian foreign policy under Prime Minister Harper also speaks about its new found “coherence.” 

The better descriptor, however, is strategic incoherence. 

First, there is a glaring disconnect between the government’s rhetoric of support for human rights and its performance in supporting them in practice. It is difficult to point to a single major initiative that goes beyond or even strengthens the human rights dialogues instituted by earlier governments or the CIDA-supported projects for working with civil-society groups in China. 

Second, the mixed signals on Chinese investment in the Canadian energy sector puzzle key players on both sides of the Pacific at a time when Canada urgently needs investment from not only Chinese companies but other state-owned enterprises. 

Third, the putative emphasis on human rights and ambitious economic goals may balance interests inside the Party but do not add up to a balanced or comprehensive China policy. Rather it has been mono-focal. The domains of environment and security in particular have been, at best, afterthoughts at the level of “high policy.”      

There are indeed multiple risks in attracting more foreign investment from China, expanding people-to-people links, dealing with a more muscular Chinese military capability, and moving toward some kind of free trade agreement. Beijing also faces a veritable encyclopedia of social problems ranging from corruption and pollution to the political challenges of developing more effective institutions that can provide order while adjusting to a very new set of economic challenges and societal pressures. 

Watching these trends and managing a host of other issues posed by China’s new global presence demand we have the legal, regulatory and other safeguards necessary to protect Canadian interests, just as we do with interactions with other countries. 

The bigger risk is vacillation, inconsistency, and closing off opportunities for deeper exchange in economic, diplomatic, and societal terms. Engagement can be judiciously blended with strategic hedging and policy caution; it does not mix well with black and white ideological hostility. 

Canadians continue to hold a generally favourable impression of China.  But recent opinion polls by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and others indicate that public anxieties are growing regarding several aspects of a rising China; outward foreign investment, environmental conditions, human rights record, product safety, and defence modernization are among these concerns. The government is not only reacting to these anxieties, it is amplifying them by failing to articulate a strategic rationale for deeper engagement.  

It is hubris of a very high order to think that Canadians and other outsiders will play a dominant role in shaping China’s future. But it is equally mistaken to believe that a more imaginative and purposive Canada cannot play a constructive role in occasionally influencing specific Chinese decisions and attitudes as it has in past. 

To reclaim that more imaginative position, Ottawa will demand an adjustment in attitude and a recalibration of forty years of engagement rather than another round of reactive and transactional management of relations “cool” politics. One of the greatest values that Canadians hold is the cosmopolitanism that underwrites our confidence in freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law even as we acknowledge the imperfections in our own experiment with peace, order, and good government. A second is the realism that the international order we have known since WWII is at a moment of major transition.

In setting the moral compass for dealing with global, due north will be shared universals rather than those framed narrowly as the products of our distinctive Western heritage.

Message to Ottawa: open the debate, break the intellectual and political log jam, and articulate a comprehensive China policy embedded in a pragmatic assessment of Canada’s needs and the shifting forces of a messy, multi-centric world order.