Terry Glavin: Reckless delusion is at the core of the Trudeau Liberals' China policy
31 March 2021
It’s been an unshakable maxim in the various truisms put about over the years by the intellectually impoverished and ethically sketchy quarters of Canada’s foreign policy establishment: China is our second largest trading partner, we have to engage with China, we can’t ignore China, and we have no choice but to hitch Canada’s economic wagon to the horse of China’s booming, growing economy.
You’d never know it, especially if the surfeit of China-trade enthusiasts embedded in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s circles have captured your attention, but it’s mostly rubbish. The traffic in these platitudes has secured a dizzying array of sinecures in corporate boardrooms and careers in politics and punditry and tenured posts in Beijing-friendly university faculties, but there is one lesson that any sensible person will draw from recent events. It’s rubbish.
The Communist Party of China is not interested in any “win-win” relationship with Canada or Canadians. Xi Jinping will do things his way, and the Canadian custom of cowering and cringing and kowtowing will not change him, no matter what Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau appears to think when he says that “bullies can change,” and we just have to somehow “pass the “message” to Xi that bullying people isn’t nice.
This, too, is rubbish, but there’s rubbish and reckless, perilous delusion, and that’s what’s been at the core of the Trudeau government’s approach to China ever since Team Trudeau was elected in 2015. Mostly, the premises that have served as the pretext for Trudeau’s China policy. It’s a policy that has been the basis of Trudeau’s entire economic standpoint and worldview, formed and shaped while Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, was heading up former finance minister Bill Morneau’s blue-ribbon economic advisory panel. And it’s just plain wrong.
For one thing, China is not Canada’s second-largest trading partner. Two years ago, at the close of its first full year of implementation, the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement provided the enforceable ground rules of a two-way trade that added up to roughly $118 billion. Canada’s trade with China amounted to $100 million last year, and there are no ground rules. One must do as one is told, as Canada’s agricultural sector learned at a cost of $2 billion in punitive sanctions two years ago following the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
It is a lesson Trudeau had not learned even by last May, when he foolishly banked on Beijing honouring an arrangement for CanSino’s COVID-19 vaccine, which of course Xi blocked, for the simple reason that he could do so and get away with it. The Trudeau government didn’t even tell Canadians about Xi’s duplicity until three months after Beijing had reneged on the deal.
Canada is a trading nation, as they say. Nearly a third of Canada’s gross domestic product derives from this country’s exports, and cross-border commerce with the U.S. dominates Canada’s foreign trade accounts. Canada-U.S. trade was worth $525.8 billion in 2020: Canada exported $270.4 billion to the U.S., while the Americans exported $254.5 billion worth of goods and services to Canada.
Canada exported only $25.2 billion worth of stuff to China in 2020, which amounts to roughly four per cent of Canada’s $683-billion exports of goods and services around the world. Four per cent, remember. Meanwhile, Canada imported $76.4 billion of stuff from China last year in a trade imbalance that has been growing steadily, to China’s advantage, for several years. And China has been increasingly turning the trade screws on Canada.
It’s all been wonderfully comforting to pretend that the agony endured by Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, held captive in Xi’s state-security gulag since Dec. 10, 2018, is merely a consequence of Canada getting caught up in the crossfire of a Chinese-American power struggle. And that if we could just find an excuse to let Meng jet off back to Shenzhen so as to evade the 13 charges of fraud the U.S. Justice Department has filed against her, everything would be fine again.
Everything will not be fine again. And standing around with our hands in our pockets will not change that. But for lack of either imagination or spine, or both, that is exactly what Team Trudeau is doing.
“We’re not even taking trade action on imports that are already supposed to be banned in Canada. That should be the starting point,” Michael Chong, the Conservative Opposition foreign-policy critic, told me the other day. Owing to his penchant for merely noticing out loud that Beijing is carrying out what amounts to a genocide against the Turkic Muslim minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Chong was listed in a tranche of sanctions Beijing announced last weekend, aimed at academics, politicians and activists across Europe and North America.
While Chong was the only Canadian individual named by China’s foreign ministry, Beijing’s sanctions also aimed at the members of the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights, which mustered the impudence to use the word “genocide” to describe Beijing’s ruthless persecutions in Xinjiang.
Under the terms of the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, the imports that Canada is already supposed to be banning include goods produced by slave labour in Xinjiang. But the Trudeau government isn’t even interested to know, and appears to not want Canadians to know, that its measures to block the traffic in goods produced by forced labour aren’t working. They’re not even rules, exactly.
Three weeks ago, the Liberals and the Bloc MPs on the Standing Committee on International Trade instead blocked a motion by Conservative MP Tracy Gray to look into the effectiveness of the measures the government claims it has adopted to ensure that goods like Xinjiang cotton, produced by forced labour, are not contaminating the supply chains of products marketed and sold in Canada.
“We should be banning these products immediately, banning these products from entering Canada,” Chong said. Instead, Ottawa relies on multinational import-export companies to police themselves. “But at the end of the day it’s the federal government’s responsibility. The buck stops at the federal government.”
But we’re not barring any trade with China. Not even hoodies made from slave-picked cotton. After all, we have to engage with China, and we can’t ignore China. We have no choice but to hitch Canada’s economic wagon to the horse of China’s booming, growing economy.