Canadians often shy away from asserting or acting upon their hard foreign policy interests. We tend on occasion to confuse sentiment with substance and fret that we may “need” other countries more than they need us. Conversely, we sometimes imagine that Canada is more important or has more influence than our interests and capacity warrant. Attitudes toward China suffer from all these proclivities.
The focus of Canada’s China policy has tended to concentrate somewhat erratically on the two bookends of trade and human-rights issues with not much productive dialogue on either, and with a large gap between the two. The focus of China’s Canada policy seems to be access to Canadian resources and to the Canadian market, combined with hair-trigger sensitivities about perceived insults or slights by Canada over visits by the Dalai Lama or Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s non-attendance at the Beijing Olympics. Symbolism is an element of diplomacy, but it should not displace calculations of how interests are best served.
While there is clearly potential for a more broadly gauged foundation for the relationship, there are also practical limitations to the scope of the partnership and influence that Canada can achieve with China. For one thing, any decision to engage in a more mature manner must be shared by both countries and guided systematically from the top level of both governments. The Chinese are known for taking a long view on world affairs. Canada’s long view on China should start with a more precise definition of what we wish to achieve and how…Canada has different values on human rights and a different system of government from China’s. These differences cannot be ignored but they should not hobble broader engagement in areas of mutual interest. We do not have to camouflage our differences. Nor do we have to “go along or kowtow to get along.” That is a juvenile concept that has nothing to do with fundamental foreign policy analysis.
See also past CDT posts on China-Canadian relations.