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Beijing is looking for a closer relationship with Ottawa. Should Canada play ball?

OTTAWA — Beijing is seeking to improve relations with Ottawa after years of diplomatic unease, and though it’s not clear whether Canada is ready to play ball, some experts say there are practical reasons to look for better co-operation. 

“The strained relations between our two countries is actually not what we would like to see,” China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, said in a recent interview.

“We can be engaged in a candid and constructive dialogue.”

This year has already marked an uptick in high-level talks. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly had a lengthy call with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in January, followed by a February meeting in Germany. They only had a brief conversation in 2023.

In both meetings, China laid out its demands for better relations, including “correct cognition,” or Canada accepting responsibility for causing diplomatic strain — as Cong put it, “the responsibility does not lie with China.”

Beijing also wants “mutual respect,” which would include not recognizing an independent Taiwan, and “win-win co-operation,” which means fewer trade and science restrictions.

Relations are already in the gutter, noted Carleton University professor Jeremy Paltiel, who specializes in Canada-China relations. 

“The Chinese are saying, ‘You’re offering nothing, so why should we play ball? If you’re just gonna show up to criticize, then we’re not interested,'” he said.

Paltiel said it would be tricky for Ottawa to find something to work together on that won’t rile up the Canadian public or the U.S. government. Both increasingly think about scientific research through security or intellectual-property lenses, he said. 

Still, Beijing’s priorities could be leveraged into something that is useful for Canada, he suggested. 

One form of “win-win co-operation” could be agreeing to export small amounts of liquefied natural gas. Both countries could brand such a move as focused on reducing global carbon emissions by giving China another alternative to coal. 

Other countries have found ways to co-operate without backing down on their values, argued Paltiel.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese became the first leader of his country to visit Beijing in seven years last fall. 

His government convinced China to drop trade restrictions, Paltiel noted, even as it continued to raise human-rights issues with Beijing and work with the U.S. on nuclear submarines.

At around the same time, Joly vowed to undertake “pragmatic diplomacy” and engage more with states Canada has deep disagreements with. 

Her office said that approach was demonstrated by her March visit to Saudi Arabia.

Joly has not signalled whether a visit to China is on the horizon. 

The Canada China Business Council argues Canadian industry is losing ground to its American, Australian and European competitors, who are taking on Canada’s market share in China for goods such as pet food. 

A survey of 143 Canadian businesses last fall found “public and corporate sentiment on China remains a tremendous obstacle.”

Some 58 per cent said the risk of China arbitrarily detaining staff was still negatively affecting their business, more than five years after China arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor following the Vancouver detainment of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. 

That’s down from 70 per cent who flagged the issue in 2021.

Vina Nadjibulla, the research vice-president for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and the primary advocate for Kovrig during his detention, said China took a more assertive posture on the world stage around the time the two Michaels were detained, forcing a rethink in Washington. 

The U.S. limited its engagement over human-rights and trade issues. China’s growing trade with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine and Beijing’s use of reconnaissance balloons proved further provocation in the years that followed. 

But in mid-2023, the Biden administration undertook high-level meetings with Chinese counterparts in the hopes of getting relations back on track, a trend replicated by European and Australian allies.

It’s OK if Canada does not move aggressively to do the same, Nadjibulla said.

She noted that despite the chill in relations and persistent irritants — like Canada’s concern with alleged interference in recent federal elections — Canada’s bilateral trade with China has actually grown in recent years. 

“We need to get out of this framing of needing to win favour with China to be able to have a functional relationship,” she said.

“The state of our relations with China is what it needs to be, and it’s moving in the direction to be more functional to serve our interests.”

There needs to be some engagement with China, Nadjibulla said, on security in the Indo-Pacific region and transnational issues such as stopping the flow of fentanyl. 

At the same time, she said Ottawa should call out Chinese actions in the South China Sea that undermine the international boundaries of the Philippines and continue to support Taiwan.

China sees the democracy as a breakaway region that needs to be under Beijing’s rule, and Cong said Ottawa is breaching a long-held policy not to weigh in on China’s Taiwan position.

Nadjibulla called 2023 “a landmark year for Canada-Taiwan relations” with a series of agreements signed on issues ranging from public health to investment. 

She said Canada’s chairmanship this year of a Pacific Rim trade bloc could have Ottawa help Taiwan to enter that group.

“My hope is that as we stabilize relations with (Beijing) we don’t lose sight of the fact that we need to continue to deepen engagement with Taiwan, and we don’t let any kind of pressure or self-censorship come into the equation,” she added.

Liberal MP John McKay has argued that Canada should go even further.

“Our nation has often failed to take a firm stance on this issue, opting instead for a cautious approach of not offending the government of China,” he told a conference last month held by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.

“This reluctance to fully embrace Taiwan’s aspirations not only undermines our own values, but sends a message that we are willing to compromise on principles for the sake of economic interests.”

Federal posturing hasn’t stopped Beijing from flirting with other levels of government as it seeks to rebuild its relationships in Canada.

In a recent interview with La Presse Canadienne, China’s consul general in Montreal, Yuming Dai, said Quebec Premier François Legault would always be welcome to visit Beijing.

“China’s door always remains open,” he wrote in a French-language email interview.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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