This Week in Asia

From Meng Wengzhou and detentions to USMCA and the Arctic: 5 rules to unfreeze Canada-China ties

There is, in my view, nothing inevitable or natural about Canada and China becoming enemies. Indeed, I am a firm enemy of the proposition that our two countries should ever become enemies.

Canada does not know today's China in any deep sense, and China surely overestimates the degree to which it understands Canada's domestic and regional complexities. After all, modern Canada was born immediately after China lost the Second Opium War in the late 19th century. This means that the entire century and a half of modern Canadian statehood coincides almost exactly with the period of great destabilisation in China, and that Canadians and Chinese alike have much mutual learning to do in the context of the Chinese restabilisation and flourishing that my friend Kishore Mahbubani has called "the great convergence".

Here's a fact that surprises many of my Chinese friends and colleagues: Canada is older than China. Yes, I said it. Chinese civilisation is obviously far older than the Canadian project, but the modern Canadian federation is over 80 years older than the modern Chinese state. This means that, contrary to possible appearances or stereotypes, Canada's internal political and administrative systems, at all levels of government, are highly entrenched and hugely sophisticated.

Here's a fact that surprises many of my Canadian friends and colleagues: Canada is, in many ways, geographically closer to China than is Australia. If our Australian cousins fancy themselves "in Asia", as it were, then aren't we Canadians even more "in Asia"? Answer: of course we are. The Canada of the 21st century occupies some of the most strategic real estate in the world " at the very intersection of the United States, China, Russia (in the Arctic space), and the European continent (what I call "ACRE"). Indeed, as I have long argued, this Canada is likely to be a country of almost 100 million people by the century's end " larger than any country in the European Union, and among the most important and powerful countries on Earth.

The Canada-China relationship is therefore a relationship of neighbours, great countries and proud peoples that must be recalibrated with the greatest urgency and seriousness if we are to avoid losing time, escape misunderstanding or even calamity in the short-run, and do great things together over the longer run.

Let me offer five rules.

Rule 1. The arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Canada and the apparent counter-arrests of Canadians in China have begun to significantly deter and undermine bilateral travel, communication and trust between our two great countries. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Xi Jinping must meet immediately and issue a joint public declaration confirming that both countries are fully welcoming of visits, work and exchanges by and of the citizens of each other's countries, and are wholeheartedly committed to ensuring zero political interference in the treatment of individual Canadian and Chinese visitors in their respective countries.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo: Bloomberg

As for Meng, given the American president's clear politicisation of the case, whatever its merits, Canada cannot possibly extradite her to the US. Canada, in turn, will also be justified in demanding the immediate release of any and all Canadians detained even on the slightest perception of retaliation for Meng's arrest.

Rule 2. Trudeau and Xi should, in this same meeting, establish a Canada-China standing commission to elaborate a comprehensive 20-year bilateral agenda between Canada and China in all spheres of policy and human activity " from economics to the environment and the redesign and modernisation of international institutions. This commission should be established on the basis of bilateral friendship, equality between states, and joint ambition for peace, prosperity and progress in the 21st century.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

Rule 3. What about the US, and what about the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement and its implications for China in particular? Canada and the US, for deep reasons of history, culture and geographical proximity, are and will remain close friends and allies for the foreseeable future. From the Canadian perspective, however, this should in no way militate against a close, friendly and open relationship between Canada and China " as mentioned, de facto neighbours that still don't know each other very well. To this end, Canada's vocation must be to play the "bridge" between North America and China and the East Asian space. We Canadians are, in truth, still struggling to realise the importance of this new "interstitial" role, but China must also understand that it is in its own interest for Canada to play this role well in order for the relations between the continental blocs to be "tendon-like" and constructive rather than hostile, with the cataclysmic prospect of armed conflict.

I am on the record as stating that Article 32.10 (the so-called "China clause") in the new USMCA Agreement should never have been included in any deal that Canada signs. This is not primarily because it impairs, strictly speaking, the prospect of a "free-trade agreement" between Ottawa and Beijing " a free-trade agreement that may or may not happen in the future " but rather because it unnecessarily kneecaps or limits, in spiritual and operational terms alike, the expanse and spectrum of the Canada-China relationship at its very infancy. Whether Canada is able, as is my advice and hope, to excise this clause in any version of USMCA that we eventually ratify (as well as remove all American tariffs inconsistent with USMCA), China and Canada should each keep the door open to the other, as it were. We are different countries and peoples, with different values and interests, now let's do great things together.

Rule 4. In this spirit of greatness, one of the major challenges for Canada this century will be to prepare our Northern and Arctic space for the consequences of global warming. Canada is an Arctic giant, abutting Russia, the US and the European Nordic countries. But we have arguably the least developed Northern and Arctic infrastructure among all Arctic nations. Can China, the world's leading infrastructure power, help us? Indubitably. Let's start talking and plotting in earnest.

The Canadian High Arctic. Photo: AFP

Rule 5. If China can help Canada plan and develop the world's best Arctic infrastructure, what can Canada teach China? Answer: a great deal.

There is a famous Chinese proverb to the effect that the "emperor is far away".

The Russian equivalent says the "truth never reaches the tsar" (distance from the people and bureaucracy oblige). Canada, a territorially massive country, has been able to overcome this critical challenge of statecraft through the development of rich, highly nuanced "feedback loops" to power from an extremely diverse citizenry.

As I know for a fact that China, for all its economic, political and administrative achievements, is constantly looking to improve the feedback and information loops from the Chinese people to Chinese decision-makers at all levels of power, let there be no doubt that Canadian governance expertise here is arguably second to none.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

More from This Week in Asia

This Week in Asia6 min readPsychology
Mikhy Farrera Brochez, American Man At Heart Of Singapore's HIV Data Scandal, Ran Hong Kong Centre For Special Needs Children
The American at the centre of Singapore's HIV data leak scandal ran education-related businesses in Hong Kong, charging as much as HK$8,000 for each assessment of a child with special needs, the South China Morning Post has found. Mikhy Farrera Broch
This Week in Asia4 min readPolitics
Who's Making China Look Ugly Now? Anger Over Zara's Ad Showing Freckle-faced Model Li Jingwen Only Puts Chinese People's Lack Of Confidence On Show
In the latest case, a new cosmetics advertisement for the Spanish fashion house Zara featuring a Chinese model has stirred up debate on the topic of "uglifying China". Since the ad "Beauty is Here" was released on Sina Weibo last week, a number of an
This Week in Asia5 min readPolitics
Huang Xiangmo And Meng Wanzhou Today, Any Other Chinese Tomorrow?
According to Chinese tradition, the first day of the Lunar New Year is one of the most sacred occasions. It is when Chinese around the world gather with their loved ones to celebrate and pray for an auspicious year ahead. But the first day of the Yea