In today’s Hill Times column, I discuss trade with China. There is a great deal of pressure within Canada not to say anything that might ‘offend’ the Chinese because the subtext is that they will punish us economically if we dare speak our minds. What should we do? Our only possible response to speak away, while taking all the counter-measures necessary to protect ourselves, including aggressive counter-espionage and a healthy skepticism about the independence of Chinese companies from the regime in Beijing. The full column below:
By Brian Lee Crowley, The Hill Times, February 20, 2012
Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s greatest prime minister, had two sage pieces of advice for Canadians about trade. First, free trade with the United States is the indispensable cornerstone of our prosperity. Second, we should build on that primary relationship by seeking markets wherever they are to be found.
A century later, that is still good advice. Specialize, but diversify. We have free trade with the U.S, to whom we send the lion’s share of our exports, but we want to reduce our dependence on that single market. Put that unease about our dependence on America together with their recent erratic behaviour over the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, and Canadian eyes turn, quite naturally, to China and its vast expanding market.
Yet there is a powerful, but inarticulate ambivalence in the minds of Canadians about drawing closer to China. In the media that ambivalence is usually portrayed as a reservation about China’s treatment of its own people, or its “human rights record” at home.
China indisputably is a conscienceless regime that treats domestic dissenters and opponents with breathtaking callousness and cruelty. From its arrogant, unaccountable and corrupt system of government to its cheerful resort to firing squads (5,000 executions in 2009—more than the rest of the world combined), harvesting of organs from opponents and its violent suppression of Tiananmen Square protesters, Tibetan autonomists, and Falun Gong supporters, the odious Chinese regime is certainly an egregious offender against international norms of human rights.
But that in itself is not sufficient to make us avoid trading with China. We have traded with as bad and worse regimes: the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Libya before the revolution and others have all been places where Canadians have bought and sold despite appalling human rights records. Canada rightly criticizes all such regimes, but does not interfere with its own citizens’ rights to engage in trade as long as they do so in accordance with Canadian law.
The real reason to be exceptionally wary and prudent in our relationship with China actually has nothing to do with how they treat their own people and everything with how they treat us. Make no mistake: China is projecting its amoral pursuit of its regime’s interests into the wider world, including right here in Canada. Wherever China has acquired economic and political power, it has used it to intimidate opponents and hold itself above the law.
In Asia, for example, China unabashedly uses its growing economic and military clout to intimidate smaller countries. It is unwilling to see its expansive and weakly justified claims to resource-rich parts of the South China Sea subjected to normal rules-based settlement in international forums. It prefers to become economically dominant in smaller countries like Vietnam and the Philippines and then use that power to bully their partner into submission. The recent welcome political liberalization in Burma can be traced its military junta’s increasing unwillingness to be pushed around by China and the consequent need to repair relations with the west. Small Asian countries warmly welcomed America’s stated intention of becoming more present in East Asia because they want a powerful counterweight to the overbearing Chinese.
Then there is China’s aggressive campaign of spying and espionage against foreigners in general and Canadians firms, individuals and interests in particular. Despite considerable media coverage, Canadians seem blithely unaware of the extent of China’s spying efforts. To pick just one recent example, a defector from China’s intelligence services has indicated China has 1,000 economic spies at work in Canada, more than any other country. Canadian researchers have been instrumental in uncovering a worldwide software-based Chinese spy network that targeted sensitive government information, while industrial espionage has pillaged Canadian industrial and business secrets.
In sum China’s is a nasty regime that wishes us ill, unashamedly exploits weakness in its trade partners and holds itself above both the law and international norms of decency wherever it is to their advantage. We may be economically dependent on the U.S., but we debate that dependence and every exercise of American power openly and vigorously. We constantly tell America what we think without fear of serious retaliation because they are a mature transparent society that shares our values and operates under the rule of law. By contrast there is a great deal of pressure within Canada not to say anything that might “offend” the Chinese, on whom we are far less dependent. The subtext: they will punish us economically if we dare speak our minds.
The only possible response is for us to speak away, while taking all the counter-measures necessary to protect ourselves, including aggressive counter-espionage and a healthy skepticism about the independence of Chinese companies from the regime in Beijing. By all means sell to China. But we should never change who we are to do so.
Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.
The Hill Times