By Elias Weiss.
Featured image via Adrian Wyld, CP.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has officially kicked-off his first official visit to China in Beijing. During his visit, he will meet with both Chinese president Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang as well as various Chinese business leaders.

On the menu, we can expect talks about a canola dispute, discussions about a potential free trade deal, Canadian investments in Asian infrastructure and hopefully the case of Kevin Garratt, the Canadian man accused of espionage, will be raised. The trip will end in Hangzhou for the 11th G20 summit.

It would be very difficult to talk about this trip and about Canada-China relations more generally without mentioning Trudeau père. Pierre Trudeau was one of the first Western leaders to recognize the People’s Republic of China, establishing diplomatic relations in 1970 and making an historical official visit in 1973.

It was far from an easy ride, however. Negotiations were difficult, especially around Taiwan. China argued that Taiwan was an inalienable part of their territory, Canada disagreed. Eventually, this issue was resolved by the ‘Canadian formula’ which was a simple, yet ingenious compromise: the Canadian government would ‘take note of the position of the People’s Republic of China’ without ever agreeing with it.

Trudeau père visited China twice before becoming prime minister. Once in 1949, as the Chinese revolution was raging, culminating in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. And then again in 1960, for a month-long trip. Trudeau published a book on this particular ‘adventure’ in 1961, with his friend and travel companion Jacques Hebert, titled Deux innocents en Chine rouge. At that time, China had found itself in the middle of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” – a devastating economic ‘experiment’ that was, in part, responsible for one of the worst man-made famine in history. Six years later, a similar failure, the Cultural Revolution, would be set in motion.

The reason it is so fascinating to go ‘back in time’ to revisit Pierre’s experience with China, is to consider just how much the country has changed since then. The China that Justin Trudeau has to deal with today is a distinctly different China than the one his father knew.

Chairman Jack Ma (r) listens to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau respond to a question during a China Entrepreneur Club session in Beijing, China. (Photo: Adrian Wyld, CP.)

China is now the world’s second largest economy and first goods exporter; it’s also a growing military power and home to the world’s most populous middle class (109 million). Moreover, China is one of Canada’s largest trading partners, second only to the United States. In essence, China is now a major player and as Justin Trudeau said during a Q&A session at the China Entrepreneur Club this Monday: “Any economic strategy that ignores China or that treats that valuable relationship as anything less than critically important is not just short-sighted, it’s irresponsible.”

“We know that a stronger and deeper relationship with China is essential if we are to achieve our own objectives,” Trudeau says with considerable gusto.

The economic advantages of a ‘stronger and deeper relationship’ with China are quite clear: from energy to food and services, China is a very attractive market for Canadian businesses. In exchange, Canada could be rather ‘useful’ for China’s diplomatic goals and its hopes to be taken more seriously on the international stage as a great power.

That said, Trudeau has to be mindful about reaching out to China, while, at the same time, not be viewed at home as spineless on thorny issues such as human rights.

Even though a growing number of Canadians seem to have more positive feelings towards China, unease about Chinese investments and human rights abuses are still very much present. According to a poll conducted by EKOS for the Asian Pacific Foundation of Canada, 49% of Canadians (up from 41% in 2014) view the growing importance and status of China as an opportunity. But a Nanos survey, this time conducted for the Globe and Mail, found that although 44% of Canadians prefer prioritizing trade with China, another 43% believe that human rights are more important.

Are these two objectives – expanding human rights and trade – mutually exclusive? Perhaps, but the prime minister seemed aware during a press conference last week that any potential economic benefits wouldn’t be universally accepted at home if questions like labour rights and democracy were not openly promoted by the Canada government. Question is, can Justin Trudeau find his own version of the ‘Canadian formula’ that will allow for a more nuanced, pragmatic and hopefully productive approach to Canada-China relations? Here’s hoping that formula involves more than ignoring the problem.

Elias Weiss 
studies Neuroscience and Biotechnology at McGill University. A liberal and a passionate believer in evidence-based decision-making, Elias hails from British Columbia but is now a proud Montréaler.

Twitter: @eligdeon

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