Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Op-ed in Ottawa Citizen: You can’t promote rights from way over here

APRIL 20, 2009

Let’s give International Trade Minister Stockwell Day credit for making a successful mission to East Asia. The highlights included opening six new Canadian trade offices across China, and breaking the ground for the Canadian-funded reconstruction of a seniors’ home that was levelled in China’s devastating earthquake last year.

As Canada’s top-security-guard-turned-top-salesman, Mr. Day showed unprecedented enthusiasm for forging closer economic ties with China, now Canada’s second-largest trading partner. Yet he insisted that there are no fundamental shifts in the Conservative government’s China policy.

Mr. Day is partly right in the sense that the Conservatives never had a clearly articulated China policy to begin with. Former Canadian ambassador to the United States Derek Burney has characterized Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s China policy as “juvenile” — implying immaturity as the cause of the problem.

The reality of the Conservatives’ China policy in the past three years is more like being infected by an ideological tumor. It did not lead to brain death, largely due to former international trade and foreign minister David Emerson’s persistent efforts to engage China within the cabinet. He was right but almost a lone voice in the Harper top circle. As a result, the body of Canadian national interests has suffered.

The first casualty is in fact human rights. Unlike the commonly accepted perception that this government has emphasized human rights issues since coming to power, the record shows that Canada has done very little in promoting human rights in China since 2006.

Ottawa suspended the annual bilateral human rights dialogue, saying it was not effective, thus throwing the baby out with the bath water. The House Committee on human rights pursued a lengthy hearing that led nowhere, produced nothing tangible and became a disappointment even for human rights groups.

With the Conservatives removing China from their foreign policy priority list, Canada’s economic relations with the world’s fastest growing market have not kept pace with other industrialized countries, losing trade and investment shares. It is now evident more than ever that ignoring China has cost Canadians jobs that would have otherwise been created with an active, engaging strategy at the highest level.

And Harper’s suspension of mutual summit visits with China since 2006 has made Canada totally out of sync with other world powers — all of them have annual regular summit diplomacy with Beijing.

Thus, Harper stands alone and has no effective means of engaging the emerging superpower on important issues such as environment, global warming, and many regional issues vital to Canada’s economic and security wellbeing.

Now Stockwell Day has openly reversed Harper’s infamous quote on not selling out human rights for the mighty dollar by declaring that trade and rights are not mutually exclusive goals in dealing with China. This is a good step in the right direction.

But it’s too early to conclude that the Harperites have come to terms with China’s reality. The Conservatives must make strides in the following areas to make up lost ground in China.
In the short term, Mr. Harper must resume summit diplomacy by going to Beijing, a long overdue trip to reciprocate Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Canada in the fall of 2005. He may send more ministers to China or open more trade offices. But they are all marginal measures in contrast to personally engaging the Chinese leadership at the highest level.

Ottawa’s medium-term goal is to formulate a non-partisan China vision and strategy that treats our relationship with Beijing as no less important than our ties with Washington. It is tunnel vision for those who advocate better Chinese language skills of Canadian diplomats in the Beijing embassy as a solution to advance Canadian interests in China.

Instead, Canada must work actively to re-establish the strategic partnership that the two countries announced in 2005. In addition to regular summit meetings, Canadian interests will be best served with a number of high-level annual bilateral dialogues on issues ranging from trade to investment to security to climate change to human rights.

And Canada’s long-term China policy goal is to design a series of programs that not only serve our own interests but also assist reform-oriented forces in the Chinese society and within the Chinese government to move China toward more openness, more transparency and more respect for human rights.

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