On Canada and China: Politics, ping-pong, and trading with a dragon

The federal government has been criticized for its handling of China both diplomatically and on trade. That said, Canada is a tiny country economically, and it’s rather difficult to throw weight around when you don’t have it.

Dr. Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, says that some of China’s behaviour and decisions warrant criticism, by name. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t fallout for doing so.

For example, Australia’s beef and barley exports were recently penalized by China, after the country began calls for an investigation in to the handling of COVID-19. Canada, of course, ended up with blocked canola imports over 18 months ago, predicated on a phytosanitary issue, but more accurately linked to Canada detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the U.S. government.

“Canada is small, our clout is modest internationally on trade, and we have to be mindful of that,” Houlden says. We are not as vulnerable as some, like Australia, but we are vulnerable, nonetheless.

Economic wins and nationalism carry real value for the people of China, says Houlden, who served multiple diplomat postings in China. Nationalism — and the idea that China was pushed around by the west and now has to push back — is very popular with the younger generation, he says.

“The bedrock view of Canada is still positive,” Houlden says, with our blue sky, clean air, good food, and friendly people. But our reputation and favour has taken a hit over the Meng Wanzhou issue. “We’re not the running dog of the Americans, but there is some negative overlay over the last two years.”

China does really need the U.S.; it’s important to their security, and to maintaining prosperity and becoming a military super power, even though the EU is its number one trading partner, Houlden says. Because of that, the U.S. can get away with things that Canada can’t. Interestingly, China has also been very adept at prying some less-developed countries away from their allegiance to the U.S. It’s a calculated move, to be sure.

So where do we go from here? Can we “get tough on China” without shooting ourselves in the foot?

Houlden says that if China is not the largest economy on earth soon, it will be a solid number two. The centre of the global economy has shifted to Asia and these are countries that we have less experience dealing with, with different political systems and more.

“We’re going to need to learn some new skill sets, in terms to manage that while still maintaining our own independence,” Houlden says. And a key part of that may be to get more comfortable with less constant, less dependable trade.

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