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Canada's broken China policy

August 25, 2008

Critics assail the PM's refusal to engage China, while others say his
approach plays well to his political base. But most observers agree
that the real problem with Canada's China policy is that we don't have one
Chris Cobb
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
August 23, 2008

Jean Chrétien struck a political nerve in Ottawa, and got front-page
coverage in Beijing, when he accused the Harper government of
destroying Canada's relations with China.

Mr. Chrétien, who has long-established business interests in China,
was specifically critical of Mr. Harper's snub of the Olympic Games
and of the government's granting of honorary Canadian citizenship to
Beijing's Tibetan nemesis, the Dalai Lama.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his allies responded by insisting
again that the Olympics is a sporting event, not a political one and
by attacking Mr. Chrétien's own Olympics record as Canadian leader
(he attended one -- 1996 in Atlanta -- out of five) and suggesting
the former prime minister is motivated by his own economic self interest.

But the Conservatives' rapid-response team sidestepped the
substantive question: Is Mr. Chrétien correct?

Wenran Jiang, one of Canada's foremost China-watchers, says Mr.
Chrétien has had a consistent position on China since the day he
became prime minister.

"It's cynical to say that Chrétien is criticizing Harper because he
has post-retirement China business ties," he says. "He has been
consistent from the beginning and many of the most effective Chinese
human rights issues were solved under the Liberal government."

But while it's true that Beijing is disappointed that Mr. Harper is
not attending the Games, and angry at the Conservative government for
granting the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship, both events are only
symptoms of a larger Canadian problem with the Chinese.

In short, he says, the problem with Canada's China policy is that
there isn't one.

"Harper has not been able or willing to engage in summit diplomacy
with China since he came to power," says Mr. Jiang, acting director
of the University of Alberta's China Institute. "That's extremely
abnormal and makes Canada the only industrialized country not to
engage China. Canada is way out of the picture and, the Chrétien
debate aside, this is a bigger problem for the Harper government and
for Canada."

Mr. Harper has not visited China since he became prime minister in
2006, although the country is now Canada's second-largest trade
partner after the United States.

According to Statistics Canada, trade between Canada and China in
2006 was $42.2 billion, with $34.5 billion of that in goods imported
from China into Canada. Last year, the total trade was estimated to
be worth about $50 billion, with Canada's trade deficit with China
continuing to grow.

According to Mr. Jiang, there are several reasons why Canada has been
neglecting its China relationship: the Harper Conservatives' focus on
preserving their minority government, poor ministerial leadership at
the Department of Foreign Affairs and influential anti-Chinese
government voices within the Conservative caucus -- notably secretary
of state for multiculturalism and key Harper advisor Jason Kenney,
one of the loudest critics of Mr. Chrétien's comments this week. (Mr.
Kenney's chief of staff, Tenzin Dargyal Khangsar, a former
businessman of Tibetan heritage, was executive director of the Canada
Tibet Committee, a human rights group).

"They don't feel it's important to engage China and they don't feel
they are being punished because of it," adds Mr. Jiang. "That's a
terrible mistake. We're losing ground in many ways. Party politics
has trumped national interest."

Fen Hampson, director of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School
for international Affairs, says Mr. Chrétien exaggerated the
importance of Mr. Harper's non-attendance at the Olympic Games and
the bestowing of the Dalai Lama's honorary citizenship.

"Other G8 leaders didn't attend," he says, "and others have honored
the Dalai Lama -- George W. Bush gave him the Medal of Freedom. He
has been wined and dined and recognized by G8 heads of government.
It's a way of keeping up the pressure."

Mr. Hampson agrees that under the Harper government, Canada has not
has not had a strategically well-crafted policy toward China, but
says the recent appointment of former Liberal David Emerson as
Foreign Affairs minister might signal an improvement.

"It was partly a reflection of weak leadership in the Foreign Affairs
portfolio," says Mr. Hampson. "Now what you're seeing is proper adult
supervision of our China policy, and Emerson is showing himself in
short order to be an enormously capable foreign minister. He
understands that more subtlety is needed in the management of the
relationship with China. We need more temperate, and that might be
Chrétien's point."

But any Canadian government policy toward China also has to reflect
the reality that many Canadians care about human rights, adds Mr. Hampson.

"So you don't throw away human rights," he says, "There have been
egregious things happening in China and it's important that western
leaders take a stand. You don't turn a blind eye. The real challenge
is getting the calibration right so you don't shoot yourself in the foot."

In a government in which cabinet ministers have not been allowed to
speak freely, political scientist and Harper-watcher Jonathan Malloy
says Mr. Emerson has the stature and background that will allow him
to show a streak of independence.

"He is more of a realist," says Mr. Malloy. "He says, 'We don't agree
with everything on Tibet and human rights, but there are important
economic interests to consider. China is improving and we have to
take the good with the bad.' Harper and Kenney have a more
black-and-white attitude."

It isn't clear how the relationship with China will affect
Conservatives' chances of forming a majority government, adds Mr. Malloy.

"Harper does tend to follow his own principles and views," says the
Carleton University professor, "and his position on China plays well
to the Conservative base. On the other hand, it isn't (maintaining)
his base he has to worry about, but growing it. But how many
Canadians care about our China policy?"

Canadians should care, says Wenran Jiang. "We need to engage China in
a manner that has more substance and not just moral statements," he
says. "On the economic front we can't afford not to engage China.
Over the past few years, it has overtaken Japan and Mexico as the
United States's biggest trading partner and it is set to overtake
Canada -- in terms of imports it already has. So do Canadians want
China to replace Canada as the United States' largest trading partner?

"Our China challenge," he adds, "is not across the Pacific but south
of the border. It's an illusion to think we can keep a cold political
relationship with China and expect a warm economic relationship. In
China, Canada is seen as a country unwilling to engage."

And it's a myth than the Harper government is more principled in its
stand against China than previous Canadian governments, he says,

"Aside for lecturing China with moral statements," he says, " this
government has done nothing to help human rights in China. There have
been no initiatives whatsoever in the past two and a half years."

Ultimately, predicts Mr. Hampson, China's self-interest will prevail,

"China is integrated with the world economy," he says, " and has a
strong appetite for various kinds of natural resources, with which
Canada is well endowed. So the relationship is more durable and more
impervious than some to political high or low notes."

Canadians tend to have an inflated sense of their importance on the
world stage, adds Mr. Hampson.

"Some countries matter a lot to China," he says, "and the U.S. is one
of them. But we are a small player. It's also sometimes forgotten
that China also needs us, and so they can live with Harper not going
to the Games, just like they could live with (German chancellor)
Angela Merkel and Prince Charles not going.

"There may be some political ramifications," adds Mr. Hampson.
"Perhaps the Chinese won't be at the opening of our Games. But will we care?"

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