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As Others ‘Decouple,’ Canada Moves to Mend China Relations


Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly delivers a speech during a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, following the Russian invasion in Ukraine, in Geneva, Switzerland, Feb. 28, 2022.

At a time when the United States and some of its allies are seeking to reduce their dependence on China for strategic and other goods, Canada is looking to move past an ugly spat that drove relations with Beijing to a historic low.

Less than a year after the resolution of a dispute that saw a senior Huawai executive detained in Vancouver and two Canadians jailed for three years in China, trade between the two countries is setting new records and officials say they are eager to mend the relationship.

The relationship “is a difficult one — there were arbitrary detentions of the two Michaels: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. I’m glad that this issue is now over and we’re moving on,” said Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly in an April interview with Politico. “My goal is to make sure that we re-establish ties.”

During a call in early April with Wang Yi, China’s State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joli and her counterpart stressed their “strong cultural and people-to-people ties” and “discussed avenues of collaboration between the two countries on areas of mutual interest,” according to a Canadian readout of the call.

The readout said Joly also “reiterated Canada’s concerns with ongoing human rights violations in China, including in Xinjiang,” and she warned the world is “closely looking at” China’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Chinese and Canadian officials attend the first China-Canada economic and financial strategy dialogue in Beijing, China, Nov. 12, 2018.
Chinese and Canadian officials attend the first China-Canada economic and financial strategy dialogue in Beijing, China, Nov. 12, 2018.

More details of Canada’s approach to China will be revealed when it unveils a long-awaited “Indo-Pacific strategy” in the coming weeks, Joly told Politico.

Canadian business leaders already have moved on. Despite the nearly three-year dispute over the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request, trade between the two countries is showing strong growth.

According to the University of Alberta website: “Canadian exports to China grew 14% year-over-year in 2021, the largest growth rate seen since 2018 … Moreover, the total value of Canadian exports to China surpassed the previous record set in 2018,” when China halted the import of some Canadian products in response to the Huawei detention.

The boost in trade includes a surge in Canadian exports to China, which reached $22.3 billion last year, the Canadian statistical agency reported. Further growth is likely after last month’s announcement that China will resume the purchase of Canadian canola seed from two firms that were blocked during the Huawei dispute in 2019.

U.S.-China trade also is growing, despite Trump administration-imposed tariffs and a rash of American news reports decrying the U.S. reliance on China for various strategic goods and calling for a “decoupling” of the two economies.

Trade between China and the U.S. topped $656 billion last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from $557 billion in 2020 and $556 billion in 2019.

While Canadian business leaders appear eager to resume business as usual with China, the public still harbors ill feelings over the detention of the “two Michaels,” whose imprisonment on spurious charges appeared to be simple retaliation for the detention of Meng.

Analysts say little has changed since a Bloomberg News poll in March 2021, which found that only 14% of Canadians have a favorable view of China.

“While Canadian public opinion has turned in favor of Canada standing up against China's flouting of the norms of the international rules-based order in human rights, diplomacy and trade, Canada's political and economic establishment continues to seek a middle path between China and the USA,” said Charles Burton, a senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa.

“Canada is increasingly at odds with the U.S. and other like-minded democracies on how best to constrain China's malign agenda in global affairs,” Burton said in an interview.

A similar view was expressed by Calvin Chrustie, a senior partner at the Critical Risk Team, a risk management and security advisory firm, and founding member of Project Seshat, which studies hybrid warfare and negotiations. He is also a former senior director of operations at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and has been a negotiator in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

“Canadian business leaders, diplomats, and politicians have demonstrated over the last 20 years their inability to manage the risks associated with engagement with China, due to the lack of several things,” Chrustie told VOA. “One, awareness; two, due diligence; and three, the level of skill required to negotiate and navigate in this complex, polarized and adversarial setting.

“It’s kind of like getting in the ring with Muhammad Ali,” Chrustie added. “They’re playing chess, we’re playing checkers.”

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