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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Canada-China relations are in need of an urgent overhaul

October 28, 2008

Jim Balsillie
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
October 27, 2008

If ever there was a time to change our way of thinking about the
world, this is that time. And if ever there was a world power we
needed to understand better, it is China.

Wall Street has been at ground zero of the financial meltdown, but
the fallout has been worldwide. The ensuing shock waves have been
disorienting and scary. One thing, however, that should be reassuring
in the current crisis has been the circumspect and sensible reaction of China.

The Chinese are the second-largest holders of American debt. Stock
prices have fallen in China, as have property prices. Exports to the
U.S. have slowed, and China's growth rate has slowed with it, a major
issue for the Chinese government whose legitimacy depends, in part,
on rising living standards.

What if, in these uncertain circumstances, China had given up on the
United States? Or worse, as some feared, if China had used the crisis
to undermine American interests? After all, it was not long ago some
think tanks, including in this country, were targeting China as the
emerging successor to the Soviet Union in the eternal struggle
between presumed good and evil.

But the Chinese have recognized the global character of the crisis.
To be sure, China has a self-interest in maintaining the
international trade and financial system, and in preserving a U.S.
market on which its export-led growth and social progress
significantly depend. But that is exactly the point. We are all in
this trouble together and, to quote Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in a
recent CNN interview, "co-operation is everything."

Could China have done more to avoid or mitigate the crisis?
Undoubtedly, notably with respect to the valuation of its currency,
the yuan, but so could many others.

There are important lessons to be drawn from these developments, but
there is one in particular for Canada: Our relations with China need
overhauling.

Canadian engagement with China for long had been productive and
bipartisan. Prime minister John Diefenbaker promoted wheat sales on
credit to communist China. Prime minister Pierre Trudeau visited
China and facilitated early formal recognition. Prime minister Brian
Mulroney led the first Team Canada to China. Prime minister Jean
Chrétien continued that engagement and, also, developed a
comprehensive relationship with China, including co-operation on
human rights. Since then, engagement has regrettably receded.

Engagement does not require blanket approval of each other's domestic
or foreign policies, or the sacrifice of human rights to the almighty
buck. More sophisticated relationships are possible. Canadians
criticize the slow pace of Chinese democratic progress and judicial
independence, and disapprove of China's positions on Tibet, climate
change and Darfur, for example. The Chinese, for their part, may well
wonder about the higher infant mortality rates of Canada's aboriginal
peoples compared to other Canadians, and note the disproportionate
representation of aboriginals in Canadian prisons. They might find
unsatisfactory the high-profile difficulties Canada has in
co-operating with China on criminal justice matters.

But progress on such differences is far more likely to emerge from
mutual engagement than from unilateral isolation. In a world that is
increasingly integrated, and in which China's political and economic
significance will only grow, sound working relations have become a
pressing priority — for Canada.

With greater engagement, we could, for example, increase the presence
in China of Canadian postsecondary institutions, as centres both for
teaching and for recruitment, and to promote scholarly exchanges. We
could facilitate co-operation between Canadian and Chinese think
tanks, business organizations and NGOs. We could jointly create a
Canada-China working group on trade and investment to research,
prevent and resolve problems. We could upgrade our scarce Chinese
language skills as part of our MBA and other university programs. We
could expand areas of mutual security co-operation, including
regarding terrorism.

In the context of such engagement, in which we underlined our respect
for the extraordinary progress China has made and our empathy for the
enormous difficulties this still-developing country faces, we could
also enhance human rights co-operation — for example, judicial
training programs that are valued by the Chinese people, if not
always by the Chinese authorities.

We have significant interests at stake, from tourism, trade and
investment and intellectual property protections to immigration,
international security, global warming and consular protection for
dual citizens.

It is against this background that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's
recently announced intention to visit China is very welcome, if
overdue. It is time we change the way we think about China. The
issues are urgent, our interests are enormous and the time is now.

Jim Balsillie is the founder of the Centre for International
Governance Innovation, the Canadian International Council and the
Balsillie School of International Affairs.
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