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‘Major issue’ in China relations resolved, Canadian envoy says, but experts urge caution


A Global Affairs spokeswoman offered a less-rosy take on the relationship while experts advise against reverting to a policy of ‘broad engagement’

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The “major issue” of contention bedeviling Canada-China relations has been resolved and sunnier days between the nations lie ahead, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing said last week, offering an optimistic spin on the file that may not be totally shared by his own government.

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Dominic Barton’s comments to a state-run Chinese newspaper follow his recent advice to Canadian industry to seize business opportunities in China, regardless of the political tensions.

Barton even quoted a Chinese poem in his latest remarks to underscore that relations seemed to be on an upswing, reported the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party organ.

But a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada offered a less upbeat view of the relationship when asked about the ambassador’s comments, suggesting “we cannot simply go back to business as usual.”

Global Times described the key, now-resolved issue as Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. But it was the apparent tit-for-tat detention in harsh conditions of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor following Meng’s arrest that soured relations at this end — and helped push the Canadian public’s opinion of China to record-low levels.

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The Barton story was the third-most-viewed on the pugnacious newspaper’s English-language website Thursday, outdone only by articles promising that Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders would face “punishment” for the crime of promoting independence from the Mainland.

“What I just think we should reflect on is we’re not saying we’ve solved all the problems, we’ve still got lots of issues, but a major emotional issue is now off the table,” Global Times quoted the ambassador as saying. He was attending a Canada China Business Council (CCBC) event in Beijing.

“We should be happy that the major issue has been resolved, and that’s good.”

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Meng, who had been on bail and living in one of her Vancouver mansions, was released under a deal she struck with U.S. prosecutors last month, which led within hours to freedom for the “two Michaels.”

The paper said Barton cited a verse from a Chinese poem: “There are high mountains, wilding rivers and you can (get) lost, but in the shade of the willow tree, you can see the bright flowers and villages on the horizon.”

The ambassador, according to Global Times, elaborated that there were “always mountains and rivers” in any relationship but “let’s always keep in mind the bright side, when we walk through all these issues.”

We cannot simply go back to business as usual

The newly re-elected Liberal government has yet to unveil a comprehensive strategy on how to deal with China, whose human rights abuses, attempts to overtly and covertly extend its influence worldwide, and aggression toward Taiwan have drawn increasing criticism in the West.

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A Global Affairs spokeswoman did not comment directly on Barton’s remarks or suggest he had been misquoted, but offered a less-rosy take on the relationship in a statement to the National Post.

“The world has changed and perspectives of Canadians have changed over the past two and a half years: we cannot simply return to ‘business as usual,’” said the statement. “Our evolving approach to China … is following a four-fold approach: challenge the Chinese government’s violation of rules and norms; compete with the authoritarian model; cooperate on global issues and shared interests; and coexist with the world’s most populous country.”

It’s more important than ever for like-minded countries to jointly promote the values of democracy and human rights — and oppose “arbitrary detentions in state-to-state relations,” the department added.

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One outside expert said the government should certainly not move back toward a policy of broad engagement.

“We need to be a lot more selective in our engagement with China as trust has been broken,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing from 2012 to 2016. “This means limiting contacts to areas where it is in our interest to work with China … and protect our values and interests better.”

It was one thing to walk away from Afghanistan but a thriving democracy of some 23 million is another thing

Safeguarding Canadian interests includes having “zero tolerance for Chinese interference or spying activities,” he said.

Barton had a long history in China while an executive with the McKinsey consulting company. His key Beijing contact during that time was Vice Premier Liu He, who leads economic policy, said Gordon Houlden , director emeritus of the University of Alberta’s China Institute.

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Houlden called on the government to adopt a balanced approach to Beijing going forward.

“A policy based entirely on one dimension is unworkable, be that human rights, trade, consular relations or security,” said the former head of Global Affairs Canada’s east-Asia bureau.

His institute just released a report it prepared for the CCBC outlining China’s economic impact on Canada, as commerce between the countries actually increases. The analysis concluded that exports to China — though Canada has a merchandise trade deficit with the country of more than $50 billion a year — new immigration and Chinese investment contributed $77 billion to Canada’s economy in 2019 and supported 365,000 jobs.

Houlden said the “most dangerous” issue in relations with China centres around President Xi Jinping’s growing insistence that Taiwan join the Mainland as one country, despite opposition from the island’s elected leaders.

“It’s tough for China to accept delay without end in achieving reunification,” the professor said. “But values are also very much in play for the West. It was one thing to walk away from Afghanistan but a thriving democracy of some 23 million is another thing.”

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