Tories Deadlocked over Canada-China Relations

It's said you can judge a person by the company they keep. If the same goes for countries, then China's reputation could hardly get worse. In the last year, Beijing has run interference for a who's who of odious regimes. It blocked the United Nations from tackling the genocide in Darfur.

Tories Deadlocked over Canada-China Relations

It's said you can judge a person by the company they keep. If the same goes for countries, then China's reputation could hardly get worse. In the last year, Beijing has run interference for a who's who of odious regimes. It blocked the United Nations from tackling the genocide in Darfur. It thwarted efforts to rein in the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Just this month, Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe heaped praise on China, which has turned a blind eye to his country's repressive internal affairs. "For Zimbabwe, going to China is going to our second home," he gushed in Beijing. "We regard China as a part of us."

With its own poor record on human rights, China has long insisted countries should not interfere in each other's internal matters. And for most of the last four decades, Canada was happy to oblige. But with the Conservatives in power in Ottawa, smooth relations between the two countries have all but come to an end. That was made clear when Prime Minister Stephen HARPER requested a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, and was left hanging. One of the reasons, analysts say, is a poorly defined foreign policy, reflecting a sharply divided cabinet sparring over how Canada should deal with China's intransigence on HUMAN RIGHTS and foreign affairs. On one side are MPs calling for a tougher stance in defence of Taiwan, Tibet and political freedoms. On the other are members who insist the way to approach China is with co-operation, outreach and subtle encouragement. The split is most clearly reflected in the differences between cabinet colleagues David Emerson and Jason Kenney.

Kenney, a long-time critic of China's human rights abuses, was a Tory representative on an official visit last year by then-prime minister Paul MARTIN. It happened that Zhao Ziyang died while the Canadian delegation was in China. Zhao was the former Communist party official who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing his own government's bloody assault on the Tiananmen Square protesters in May 1989. Kenney took the opportunity to pay his respects at Zhao's Beijing home, over Martin's objections. "It's a testament to Zhao Ziyang," Kenney wrote in a condolence note, "that [Chinese authorities] won't permit open public expression of his death."

Censure of that sort against a rising economic giant is easier to express in opposition than in power. Yet Kenney has not gone soft on China since becoming a key figure in a new prime minister's inner circle. Since the Conservatives took over, he has annoyed the Chinese by meeting with the Dalai Lama, who is seen by Beijing as a dangerous separatist, and attending a National Day party at the Ottawa mission of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province rather than an independent democracy.

Trade Minister Emerson, in contrast, champions the perspective that forging commercial ties with Asia's rising economic powers trumps other considerations. He hopes to travel to China early next year to pave the way for better relations. "We are missing a generational opportunity to develop and diversify the Canadian economy," he warned recently. Among business groups eager to maximize overseas opportunities, Emerson doesn't have to work hard to make his case. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters association has grumbled about how long it's taking the Tories to send a top-level cabinet minister to China. (Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl's trip last month was dismissed as too low-level to matter.) And the Canadian Chamber of Commerce issued a report last month urging Ottawa to promote trade and investment, saying the Tories shouldn't let friction over human rights get in the way.

Neither Emerson, nor Kenney, would comment for this story, but the battle has meant deadlock in Ottawa. "The Conservatives came in and asked some fundamental questions about whether Canada has the right formula on commercial relations and on human rights with China," says one observer familiar with the matter. "But 11 months later they haven't come up with any answers. The Conservatives are not of a single mind on China. There are several groups with other views and little unity among them."

Such tension has long been the background static of Canada-China relations. What changed when the Tories won power is a matter of emphasis and convictions. Under the Liberals, Jean CHRÉTIEN led the biggest Canadian trade mission ever to Beijing in 2001, and Paul Martin made adjusting to the rise of China and India as economic powerhouses his top foreign policy priority. Liberals shared the predominant view in most democratic countries that as China opened up its economy, political progress and human rights reforms would inevitably follow.

That reassuring doctrine, allowing for guilt-free profiting from China's exploding market, now looks either wildly optimistic or merely self-serving. "Fifteen years ago, when China started to have village elections and the economy really began to open up under Deng Xiaoping. I felt that this would lead to more participation from Chinese citizens in the political process," recalls Charles Burton, a political science professor at Brock University who served two stints in the Canadian embassy in Beijing in the 1990s. "Well, I clearly was wrong. The evidence is that China has a wonderful free-market economy, very vibrant, but there is no sign of democratization in the way that Canadians understand democracy."

This week, there were reports that 99 per cent of criminal defendants in China are found guilty. Meanwhile, there were more than 87,000 protests in China last year, many against corrupt local officials. "A lot of people in the West buy into the idea that China is much more open now because they go there and say, 'Is it really so bad?' " says Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch in New York. "I think Beijing has been successful at exporting a view that China is modern and developing and there aren't the kinds of problems that existed in the past, when really they've just gotten a lot better at covering them up."

There's also growing unease in Canada and elsewhere over China's foreign relations. "The West's policy for 25 years was to bring China into the international community, which we have done," says Adam Segal, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank. "But the question is, what are they going to do there? Their support of pariah states, and undermining what the West is trying to do on human rights issues, is clearly not in our interests."

Two weeks ago, Beijing hosted what was hailed as its biggest party in half a century. Leaders and delegates from 41 African nations descended on the capital for a two-day summit. Dubbed a conference on "friendship, peace, co-operation and development," it was really a massive trade mission, cementing ties between resource-rich Africa and China, which is desperate for raw materials and willing to spend billions of dollars to secure them. By the time it was over, China pledged US$5 billion in aid loans, no strings attached, and inked another US$2 billion in business deals, including agreements with both Zimbabwe's Mugabe and Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.

While Zimbabwe is rich in minerals, Sudan has become even more important to China for its vast oil reserves. Roughly 60 per cent of Sudan's oil exports now flow to China. But in return for the crude, Beijing has offered something almost more valuable than money. For three years, armed forces and the government-backed militia known as the janjaweed have waged a bloody battle against rebels that has left half a million dead and driven more than two million people from their homes. The UN has pushed for a large peacekeeping force to stop the genocide, but has run into a major roadblock: China's permanent seat on the five-member security council. China, along with Russia, insists the UN needs Sudan's approval before troops can be deployed. This week, even as pro-government militias attacked and killed dozens of villagers, Sudan said no UN force would be allowed into the country.

Darfur is far from an isolated case. Since his election last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has cranked up the country's nuclear program, using his ties to powerful friends - especially Russia and China - as political cover. Iran supplies 13 per cent of China's oil, and this year both Russia and China have repeatedly opposed U.S.-led attempts to impose sanctions on Tehran. China was also intransigent when it came to UN sanctions against Kim Jong Il's North Korea, which last month set off its first nuclear weapon. China is believed to have halted the flow of oil to North Korea in September to put pressure on the regime, and helped lure the country back to six-party talks. Still, it opposed any of the more punitive economic sanctions demanded by the West.

Such issues rankle those MPs who advocate a hardline approach. But if Ottawa plans to ratchet up pressure on Beijing, it has the potential to get messy very fast. Part of the problem is that the government's major foreign policy decisions are tightly controlled by a small group of MPs close to the Prime Minister. On a file as complicated as China, that has led to delays. Some doubt the government's lack of a China policy will have any long-term economic consequences. "Human rights and trade have not traditionally been connected by the Chinese side," says Burton. "They'll continue to buy the best product at the best price regardless of any government's attitude toward China's human rights situation." He points to China's enthusiastic pursuit of access to Alberta's oil sands, where a Chinese state company has a $150-million stake in the Synenco project.

Right-wing groups in the U.S. are also pushing Canada to hang tough. "China has always seen Canada as having all the positive attributes of the Americans with none of the negative ones," says John Tkacik, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He doubts China would retaliate against Canada. "I think the Chinese would be far more likely to respond to Canadian constructive criticism than America's propaganda criticism."

That's a huge gamble for Harper to take. China is Canada's second-largest trading partner and is on track to overtake the U.S. in the next few years. For long-time China watchers like Senator Pat Carney, a former Tory cabinet minister who visited the country last month, the stakes are too high. "It disturbs me when we start talking about exporting Canadian values," she says. "The status quo has taken 40 years to build up. I'm confident there's no basic change in our China policy. But if there is, and the Chinese lose face, it will be us who end up with egg on our face." There are already examples of how political sparring can complicate the economic relationship. One is Canada's frustratingly slow progress toward "approved destination status," under which the Chinese government would allow its citizens to travel to Canada as tourists much more easily. More than 80 countries have negotiated the status, and the U.S. is expected to finalize a deal soon, leaving Canada's tourism sector deeply worried. According to a source familiar with the file, Beijing is unlikely to grant Canada the status until Canada deports Lai Changxing, who is accused in his native China of running a multi-billion-dollar smuggling ring, but is using every legal means to delay extradition from Vancouver. Emerson has publicly drawn a link between the stalled tourism talks and the Lai case. A tougher stance in Ottawa on human rights won't make matters easier.

In the vacuum of an articulated foreign policy, some provinces, such as British Columbia, appear to be going it alone. This week, B.C. Premier Gordon CAMPBELL jetted off for a two-week Asia-Pacific trip, including a stop in Beijing. It's the most recent in a series of high-level visits B.C. ministers have made as they push for closer economic ties.

The question remains: can Harper craft a policy that satisfies both his business-oriented supporters, who covet more trade with China, as well as small-c conservatives who can't look past the regime's many failings? So far, there's been no sign from the Prime Minister. In fact, he hardly mentions the country by name. And that leaves not only outsiders, but also bureaucrats working directly on Chinese issues, trying to read the conflicting signals from Kenney, Emerson and others. As a result, sources say, even minor officials are rarely meeting with their Chinese counterparts for the sort of low-profile talks that normally pave the way for higher-level encounters. Burton wonders what, in fact, would be gained by Harper getting his sought-after sit-down with Hu at the APEC summit. "There isn't, in my view, a lot for the two leaders to discuss," he says. "What would be put on the agenda?"

Maclean's November 27, 2006