Thursday, September 08, 2005

Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Canada

The Globe and Mail | Commentary

How do we engage China?
Thursday, September 8, 2005 Page A27

Chinese President Hu Jintao is visiting Canada to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Canada-China diplomatic relations. His impressive 100-plus member delegation and the extensive itinerary -- Ottawa and Toronto this week and Vancouver next week after attending the United Nations General Assembly -- demonstrate that Beijing attaches great importance to its relationship with Ottawa.

Mr. Hu is likely to propose a set of new initiatives to push the bilateral ties to a higher level. Prime Minister Paul Martin has indicated that he is looking forward to forging a strong personal relationship with the Chinese leader and a "strategic partnership" with China. The challenge for Ottawa is to have a clear vision on what a strategic relationship means, and to seize new opportunities to advance Canadian interests with the world's fastest growing economy.

If past bilateral summits are any indication, Canadians are about to engage in another familiar round of a "trade versus human rights" debate.

Opposition politicians, editorial pundits and some NGO groups will criticize the government for pursuing economic interests too much and for not doing enough on human-rights violations in China; the Martin cabinet will counter such criticism by raising human-rights concerns in the summit agenda; and the Chinese will play along to accommodate what they see as a formality. Once the visit is over, most of the human-rights issues will disappear from news coverage, and little will follow in terms of government policies.

Such a "spotlight" approach to human rights in China is both superficial and non-effective. The rejection of this false dichotomy between trade and rights is long overdue. The real issue is how to engage China on both fronts with Canada playing a constructive role.

Let's begin with trade. China is a global powerhouse and Canada's second-largest trading partner. In 2004, Canada's exports to China grew by 40 per cent and imports by 30 per cent. These are good figures but not extraordinary considering that China's foreign trade with all its major partners increased by 20 per cent to 40 per cent last year. Facing severe low labour-cost competition from China, Canada needs to find its competitive advantage, and the energy and related sectors seem to be the most promising.

Ranking second in the world after Saudi Arabia in possessing 178 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, Alberta has a huge potential to extract crude from its oil sands. China, on the other hand, is facing an energy supply crisis at home. Driven by a 9.5-per-cent annual growth rate in the past 25 years, China has turned from an oil exporter to the second-largest oil consumer in the world. With a floating population of 150 million, Beijing needs to keep a minimum 7-per-cent annual growth rate to provide employment and social stability. The short supply of coal, electricity and oil and the lack of transportation have become the bottlenecks to China's economic development.

It is against this background that large Chinese oil firms, all with strong government backing, have recently invested in a number of Alberta's oil-sands ventures, have expressed interests in jointly building a pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast, and have purchased PetroKazakhstan, a Calgary-based firm with large operations in Kazakhstan. These moves are aimed at ensuring China's future energy supply, a reflection of the Chinese leadership's anxiety on its energy insecurity. They are not an attempt by a Communist state to take over Canada, and it is a mistake to treat the Chinese as a threat to Canadian sovereignty.

Large-scale, long-term co-operation between Canada and China in the energy and environmental sectors has profound strategic implications: It will benefit both countries economically; it will guide China's energy policy toward a more environmentally friendly direction, producing less acid rain and chlorofluorocarbons; and it will modify Beijing's foreign policy along a more peaceful and less confrontational path, thus serving the comprehensive security interests of Canada and the rest of the world. Mr. Martin should make it clear that Chinese investments in our energy sectors are welcome as long as they meet necessary Canadian requirements.

This confident and constructive approach is equally applicable to the political front. China's political liberalization is less impressive but nevertheless substantial in the past 25 years. It will be ahistorical to write off the reform credentials of current Chinese leaders and to treat them as nothing more than a bunch of power-hungry Leninists. Only a few days ago, Mr. Hu talked candidly about the need for more democratic reforms in China, and Premier Wen Jiabao even promised to move China's village elections to the township level.

Well, Mr. Martin can take their words and engage Mr. Hu personally, showing how Canada's commitment to multiculturalism and racial tolerance and its struggle to keep our medical and social welfare system working might be conducive to Mr. Hu's efforts in building a "harmonious society." With the complexities of the Chinese reality in mind, Mr. Martin may also want to advise his guests that economic prosperity and the promotion of human rights in an open society are not and should not be mutually exclusive goals; it is a strong desire of the Canadian public that Canada's future economic co-operation with China must firmly rest on the foundation that China is moving toward a democratic society ruled by law; and Canada is ready to extend its helping hand.

It was 35 years ago that the visionary Pierre Trudeau decided to recognize the People's Republic of China. Today, Canada needs the same strategic mind in crafting a China policy that moves the bilateral relationship forward, benefiting both countries in the new century.

Wenran Jiang, associate professor of political science and special adviser to the dean of arts on international affairs at the University of Alberta, is an academic member of Canada's Strategic Working Group on China, and has organized two large bilateral energy co-operation conferences sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Alberta government.

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