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PM Harper, Canada, and China: no love lost

Posted by Author on December 21, 2009


Canada has a unique degree of independence, geographic, political and economic, in its relations with China. Canada is not part of the “quadrilateral interface” in Northeast Asia, with China, Russia, Japan and Korea struggling to create national security in a region where swords are piled like trembling jackstraws and where a tactical error can become a strategic disaster. Canada can step back and say, “none of my business.”

As a mid-level power, Canada isn’t required to contend head-to-head in various political forums with China. There can be advantages to not being a member of the UN Security Council and forced to bargain with Beijing on a global range of political concerns. Instead, our governments can pick and choose among issues.

Nor does Canada owe economic fealty to China; it is not locked in a symbiotic trade-debt relationship as is the United States. China is a useful economic partner—and could be more valuable still—but trade with Beijing is not a life-or-death need. Indeed, Beijing in its far-ranging search for natural resources needs Canada far more than vice versa.

It is against this backdrop that one can appropriately appreciate Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s early December visit to China.

From our optic, it appeared as if parts of the Canadian media were eager to take the Prime Minister to task for a supposedly tardy visit to China. They battened upon a rather mild comment by the Chinese prime minister that he should have visited sooner (and skipped past the PM’s tart rejoinder that the top Chinese leadership had yet to visit Canada). Middle Kingdom arrogance is historical in origin and while the kowtow, with its bowings and prostrations, disappeared from official protocol with the end of the Ching Dynasty, even communists enjoy having foreign devils pay obeisance (or at least due deference) to Chinese prominence.

But Canada has been notably stiff-necked and Prime Minister Harper quite correctly has not bowed, neither figuratively nor literally, to the Chinese party-state.

While those running China in their own interests are no longer enamored with “Mao suits,” it remains a very nasty regime. They no longer practise constantly the revolutionary brutality that brought them to power in 1949 after a civil war costing the lives of millions. Nor is it perhaps the regime that unleashed the blood bath of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s. And even if Tiananmen Square has been superseded by the 2008 Summer Olympics “bird’s nest” stadium in the global mind’s eye, the velvet glove is removed with alacrity frequently.

You do not have to support an independent Tibet to recognize that the Dalai Lama is one of the world’s pre-eminent religious figures and worthy of high level official attention. If this reality offends Beijing, it is their problem. You need not believe that Falun Gong prisoners are pillaged and killed without any form of hearing for organ transplants (as they clearly are) to recognize that Beijing gravely limits religious freedom. If the Prime Minister declined to attend the Beijing 2008 Olympics, he made a useful point of principle in the process.

Surely there are not many Canadians who would elect to live in China in preference to living in Canada—and the regime’s restrictions on basic freedoms would clearly be a factor in such a decision.

Thus, it is a bit rich to hear whinging from opposition figures regarding the PM’s delay in visiting China or sniping at government criticism of Beijing’s human rights abuses. To be sure, it is the role of the opposition to oppose but the ritualized carping here smacks of hypocrisy. Just what can one imagine the opposition saying had the PM whisked off to China early in his tenure? Why, Harper, of course, was fronting for big business interests in trade promotion and ignoring the regime’s gross and systematic human rights abuses.

So, as a “check the box” visit, it is done. The Chinese delivered a ritualistic knuckle tap balanced by a bon bon in the form of according Canada “approved destination” status for Chinese tourists. Neither side convinced the other of anything; there is no love lost, but there needs not be love to continue a pragmatic economic relationship that will grow (or not) on the basis of mutual interest but not on shared political/social values.

David Jones is a retired diplomat who served as political minister counsellor at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa from 1992-96. David Kilgour is a former Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) now engaged in advancing international human rights. They co-authored Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a study of Canadian-U.S. relations.

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