OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is undertaking a major internal review of Canada’s relationship with China, cautiously considering steps that include launching free trade negotiations and helping up to 100,000 Canadian students study there.
The idea of using a “youth engagement” strategy to boost Canada-China relations in the post-Stephen Harper era was suggested in one of many submissions from experts and business groups advising the government during its major — though largely hush-hush — review of the relationship.
China-watchers say an increase in people-to-people exchanges is being touted by China-watchers as a way to reverse negative polling trends reflecting Canadian attitudes about China, caused by everything from human rights abuses to Chinese investment in Alberta’s oilpatch and Vancouver’s real estate market.
“It’s great that we have 120,000 Chinese kids studying in Canada,” Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told the Canada-China Business Council in a speech last week.
She then floated the idea that Canada — perhaps with the help of corporate sponsorships — try to match the ambition of Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong Foundation, a non-profit launched in 2012 to fulfil the president’s 2009 pledge to increase the number of American students in China by that number.
“Shouldn’t we have — OK, maybe 100,000 is too much but maybe not. Let’s have 100,000 Canadian kids going and studying in China. Those human connections are essential to build a real and robust and lasting relationship.”
Freeland, in addition to that bold suggestion, also indicated that the federal government is likely to join the China-initiated US$100-billion Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.
The Harper government allied itself with the U.S. and Japan in declining to join the institution, which in December opened its vault to Asian countries looking for affordable loans to build critically-needed infrastructure. China’s founding partners include the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
“I’m not going to make any announcements about that, but … we were very clear (in opposition) that we felt Canada failing to join the Asian Infrastructure Bank as a founding member was a lost opportunity of the previous government.”
Freeland, however, was cautious while speaking to an audience that, in addition to members of the business and academic communities, included a senior Chinese diplomat.
“A trade agreement in theory would be a great thing, but we need also to have a real community behind it,” she said.
Her tone reflects the government’s cautious approach as it seeks ways to ensure that not only the business community but ordinary Canadians will accept closer ties.
Trudeau barely mentioned China during the election campaign, didn’t include it in his mandate letter to Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, and ignored the world’s emerging superpower in the government’s December Throne Speech.
The official government line review suggests Ottawa wants to play down the significance of its re-think on Canadian foreign policy in China after nine often-rocky years between the two countries under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
The government has been under enormous pressure from corporate Canada and academics to raise Canada’s game in China, especially after Australia’s recent completion of a free trade deal with its largest trading partner.
The Business Council of Canada and the Canada-China Business Council issued a report in January asserting that a Canada-China free trade deal would create 25,000 jobs and add almost $8 billion to the economy within 15 years.
And Vancouver-based Teck Corp. funded a poll a few weeks before the 2015 election suggesting that Canadians are open to the idea of enhanced relations.
China is “a priority market for Teck,” company spokesman Chad Pederson said last week, noting that 22 per cent of the company’s revenue is generated in China.
But that pressure has to be weighed against political realities.
Hard feelings in Canada have solidified since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, according to polling data analyzed in Moving Forward: Issues in Canada-China Relations, a recently-published collection of essays that is being widely circulated in Global Affairs Canada.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported worsening abuses inside China, while Beijing’s aggressive approach toward its territorial claims in the South China Sea have caused concern.
And critics have warned that Xi is trying to develop a Mao-like personality cult.
That means Trudeau, if he tries to embrace China, should assume a far cooler reaction from Canadians than he received during the recent glitzy state dinner in Washington.
“Xi is not nearly as popular as Obama in Canada,” according to Carleton University China-watcher Jeremy Paltiel.
“While we have much to gain materially by improving relations, the optics are not as favourable.”
Trudeau’s one major foray into the matter occurred in mid-November at the G20 Summit in Turkey.
“I’m well aware we have an opportunity to set a fresh approach in our relationship right now,” he told Xi before a meeting.
Eva Busza, vice-president of the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, is among several experts who expect Ottawa to come up with a new strategy on China and Asia in advance of either the G7 Summit in Japan in late May, or more likely the G20 Summit in China in September.