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Foreign Policy

Will the Advent of Justin Trudeau Revitalize Canada-China Relations?

Dec 15 , 2015
  • Hugh Stephens

    Distinguished Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

The election in Canada of a majority Liberal government on October 19 headed by 43-year old Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has engendered a sense of anticipation regarding a more activist role for Canada internationally. For Canada-China relations, the assumption of power by Trudeau fils provides a new opportunity to re-energize the bilateral relationship. It was Trudeau’s father, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, Prime Minister for over 15 years (1968-79; 1980-84), who provided the political push for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and China just over 45 years ago, a diplomatic initiative finally achieved on October 13, 1970. At the time this was an important breakthrough since, among western countries, only Britain (which had never technically broken off relations with Beijing), Switzerland, the Nordics, and France, (which recognized the PRC in 1964), had an embassy in Beijing. In the aftermath of Canadian recognition the floodgates opened and many other countries, from Australia to Japan to Germany and beyond, moved to recognize the PRC using the “Canadian formula” with respect to the mainland’s claims to Taiwan. That issue had been the sticking point in over 14 rounds of negotiations between Canadian and Chinese officials in Stockholm. China insisted that the communique recognize its claim to Taiwan. Canada was unwilling to do so. The acceptable compromise formula finally adopted was for China to state its claim, and for Canada to acknowledge (Canada “takes note of”) the Chinese position without endorsing or denying it. [1]

Pierre Trudeau had first travelled to China in 1949 when it was in the grip of revolution and returned again in 1960 after which he and friend Jacques Hebert wrote their book, “Two Innocents in Red China.” When Mr. Trudeau succeeded Lester Pearson as Prime Minister in 1968, part of his platform was to recognize the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and help bring the PRC into world forums such as the United Nations, which it joined in 1971. These were heady early days for Canada-China relations, as Canadians discovered that they had an unknown hero in China, the Canadian Communist Norman Bethune immortalized in Chairman Mao Zedong writings, and as the two countries began exchanges of delegations in every area, from culture to ocean science to geology. The U.S. too was carefully evaluating how to approach China while trying to extricate itself from the Vietnam quagmire. Canadian recognition no doubt helped socialize the idea in North America of normalizing relations with Mainland China, but Trudeau never had to face the kind of Taiwan lobby that Richard Nixon faced. Nixon’s manoeuver of sending Henry Kissinger to Beijing in 1971 to negotiate with the senior Chinese leadership is well known. Both countries established “Liaison Offices” in their respective capitals in 1973. Finally, on January 1, 1979, the U.S. broke off relations with Taiwan and formally established diplomatic links with China.

The normalization of relations between the PRC and most of the developed world was part of China’s return to the world stage and the remarkable economic growth story that began with Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Canada-China relations, like those of other countries in their relations with China, enjoyed steady growth in the ensuing years, interrupted briefly in 1989-90 by the events in Tiananmen Square, but accelerating again after China joined the WTO in 2001. In early 2006, however, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper came to power in Ottawa and Canada-China relations became a casualty of that change of government. For their first few years in power the Conservatives showed little interest in developing Canada’s relations with China. The relationship was looked at primarily through the lens of human rights issues, and there seemed to be suspicion of Chinese motives in the investment field where state-owned CNOOC made a $15 billion bid for the Canadian oil company Nexen. (The bid was ultimately approved by Canada’s foreign investment review agency, but only after much debate and a statement by the Harper government that any further such investments by state-owned firms in the oil sector would be approved only on an “exceptional basis.” Later in their mandate, the Conservatives changed course somewhat, and Mr. Harper found time to visit China. Two pandas, a sure sign of diplomatic success, were secured for the Toronto Zoo, a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA) was signed with China and a Canada-China Economic Complementarities Study was launched. That study, however, has sat on the shelf since 2012 and Canada this year passed on the opportunity to join Beijing’s new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Enter Justin Trudeau. Relations with China were not a significant part of Mr. Trudeau’s campaign, but doing things differently certainly was. This mandate for change ran the gamut from domestic economic and political reform measures to Canada’s role in the world. No sooner had Mr. Trudeau taken office than he was off to the G20 Summit in Turkey and the APEC Summit in Manila where among the first leaders he met was President Xi Jinping. Reaching back to the legacy of Trudeau’s father Pierre, Xi is reported to have commented that Trudeau père had ““extraordinary political vision” that China would always remember. Trudeau fils indicated that Canada looked forward to working with China on building economic, political and cultural ties. He invited Xi to visit Canada, and a trip to China by Trudeau may also be in the offing.

Although the Liberals are intent on conveying to the world that Canada has turned a page, on its position on climate change for example, in fact when it comes to China Mr. Trudeau can build on some solid work done by the Conservatives in the latter years of their mandate. Much of the basic infrastructure has been put in place–Canada has approved destination status for Chinese tourists, it has a designated RMB exchange hub, a dialogue mechanism for foreign ministers and economic senior officials and the bilateral investment agreement is now in force. However, in 2005 during President Hu Jintao’s visit to Ottawa, Canada and China agreed on a building a strategic partnership (with the previous Liberal government shortly before it lost power) but no strategic plan was ever developed. Both sides now have the opportunity to give real meaning to that agreement. For example, China has called for using the 2012 Economic Complementarities study to lead to the start of negotiations on a bilateral FTA, while it would be timely for Canada to reconsider its decision to decline China’s invitation to join the AIIB.

With a new government and a new Prime Minister in Ottawa, experienced policy commentators see an opportunity to redirect the future of Canada’s relations with China. Professors Paul Evans at UBC and Wendy Dobson at the University of Toronto have called for “a new approach to China” that would build on the complementarity of the Chinese and Canadian economies, while supporting “Canadian” (i.e. democratic) values. This new approach would also see Canada play a more proactive middle power role in the Asia Pacific and make relations with China and Asia a strategic priority, along the lines of the commitment made by Australia. Above all, this new approach would recognize China for what it is rather than what Canada would perhaps like it to be and will accept that while China will change, it will change at its own pace and in its own way rather than according to any script written in the West.

Will Justin Trudeau pick up on the legacy of his father and make a new relationship with a resurgent China one of his signature foreign policy pillars? Time will tell, but there is a wellspring of goodwill to be tapped, a new young sheriff in town, and bilateral opportunities for both Canada and China to develop if they wish. As the U.S. moves to recalibrate its own relationships with a rising China on trade, the environment and security issues, its neighbors and allies are forging their own path.


[1] “The Chinese Government reiterates that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the

People’s Republic of China. The Canadian government takes note of this position of the Chinese


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