Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Harper's China policy is not to have one

Wenran Jiang
28 May 2008
Ottawa Citizen

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in Europe this week in part to lobby the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy to pressure China on the issue of global warming. Even putting aside Canada's dismal record on controlling its own emission of CO2 for a moment, don't you wonder why Mr. Harper ventures into building a "coalition of the willing" before talking to the Chinese leaders?

After all, other heads of major industrialized countries visit China or receive their Chinese counterparts in their own capitals on a regular basis, and some of them do multiple mutual visits a year. U.S. President George W. Bush claims that he can just pick up the phone and talk to Chinese President Hu Jintao. French President Nicolas Sarkozy went to China only months after assuming his post, openly challenged the Chinese on global warming responsibilities, and then with a stroke of a pen, signed $30 billion worth of contracts selling Airbus planes and nuclear reactors.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown travelled to China in January, also within months of taking over from Tony Blair. Joined by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Brown engaged the Chinese people in a Q and A "town hall" meeting on a range of issues, offered to host 100 Chinese firms in Britain and promised to boost bilateral trade by 50 per cent, all in the next two years.

Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a China expert in his early training, headed to Beijing during the recent Tibet crisis. He delivered a speech in fluent Mandarin at Peking University. It was friendly, but frank, bringing up the Tibet issue. Instead of being booted, he was praised as being honest. His predecessor, the Conservative John Howard, actively engaged China, securing some $40 billion in long-term trade deals that have boosted the Australian economy.

So Mr. Harper's counterparts in Europe are likely to look him in the eye and ask two questions: Do you have strong environmental policy credentials at home? What do you have to offer from your own interactions with the Chinese leadership on the subject of global warming? Mr. Harper has neither.

While the world is busy engaging China for easily identifiable reasons, Mr. Harper has been missing in action. Two and half years after President Hu last visited Canada (fall of 2005) and more than two years after the Conservatives came to power, Mr. Harper has yet to find Beijing on the map, not to mention take a trip there anytime soon.

Foreign-policy and China-watching communities have both speculated and heard many reasons for Mr. Harper's lack of initiatives on China. First, there was the talk of an inexperienced young team that may take time to get the China file moving. Then, there was the all-consuming foreign policy challenge of Afghanistan that had to take priority over other things. Then there was the ever-looming domestic election that might come at any time, so a minority government must take care of that first ...

They all bear some truth. But they also sound more like bad excuses now that the Conservatives have been in office for 27 months. Mr. Harper's handling of Canada's China policy has been, by design or default, exactly opposite to that of other world leaders.

While others are emphasizing China's growing importance and forming a comprehensive China strategy, Canada has removed Beijing from its foreign policy priority list; while new leaders from Germany to Japan put summit diplomacy with the Chinese leaders as an indispensable part of their travel itinerary, Mr. Harper has stopped such a practice in Canada; while others are promoting investment and trade with China as a part of increasing jobs and competitiveness at home, the Harper government has let our proportion of trade and investment with China slip; and while others are in constant consultation on some of the most pressing global issues such as the environment and climate change, Mr. Harper is not even on talking terms with the Chinese.

So it is clear that Mr. Harper's China policy is anything but to have one. And contrary to the prevailing but misleading perception that somehow this government has emphasized human rights in its China policy, the Conservatives don't even deserve a passing grade on this subject.

They have suspended Canada's annual human rights dialogue and replaced it with nothing; they have been making grand, but largely self-congratulatory, moral statements regarding China's human rights record but have not implemented a single tangible project to advance human rights and democracy in that country; and Mr. Harper confuses trade with rights by stating that Canada would not sacrifice human rights for the mighty dollar, as if they are mutually exclusive objectives.

Instead of taking fresh China policy initiatives, various House and Senate committees have settled for endless hearings. What they have been told, including testimonies from this author, is very straightforward: we are losing our influence in China, we need a China strategy. Put national interests over and above narrow party politics, and engage China on a range of issues that are absolutely relevant to the long-term wellbeing of Canadians.

Yes, International Trade Minister David Emerson, the only cabinet member who has China expertise, has been going to China since last year and so have a few other ministers. But unless Mr. Harper is willing to engage the Chinese directly by making the long-overdue trip to Beijing, his China agenda on this European trip may yield very little success.

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