The Hongcouver

Does Canada really have more in common with China than with the US? Democracy, the NHL and an 8,891km border suggest not

Ambassador John McCallum’s comments raise an important question - has he recently suffered a blow to the head?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 3:14am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 7:14am

Justin Trudeau’s man in Beijing, Ambassador John McCallum, has become possessed of a novel notion – that Canada now is more closely aligned in important ways with China than it is with the United States.

Yes, that United States, the one with which Canada shares its most important military alliance, the concepts of universal suffrage and representative elected government, more than US$600 billion in annual trade, the National Hockey League and an 8,891km border.

So, the ambassador’s observations last week raise a number of important questions, not least of which is whether McCallum has recently received a blow to the head or otherwise taken leave of his senses.

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In some important policy areas … the policies of the government of Canada are closer to the policies of the government of China than they are to US policies
Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum

The former minister for immigration made his remarks on January 19, as he hosted Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard. McCallum was opining on the election of US President Donald Trump and its implications for the China-Canada relationship.

“In some important policy areas such as the environment, global warming, free trade, globalisation, the policies of the government of Canada are closer to the policies of the government of China than they are to US policies,” said McCallum, in remarks reported by the Globe and Mail.

The election of Trump represented an opportunity for Canada, McCallum reportedly said, and “because of this political situation with Donald Trump, the Chinese are now more interested than before to do things with us”.

“In a sense, it’s a good thing for me as an ambassador and for Canada with China … because of these big differences, it gives us opportunities in China. There is no doubt that Canada wants to do more with China, which is what the prime minister told me when he asked me to come here.”

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His comments were greeted with some furore back home, and he has since apparently tried to walk them back, telling CBC radio on the weekend that “the United States relationship is by far and away the most important”.

But it’s not as if McCallum misspoke earlier; he has previously been vocal about his belief that the rise of Trump was good news for the Beijing-Ottawa relationship. Because of Trump, “Canada’s opportunities with China are better today than they have been for years or probably decades,” McCallum told BNN on November 1 last year.

Pouring maple syrup in Beijing’s ear

Now, it’s true that Trump is commonly viewed here as the antithesis of modest Canadian values, with his lunatic rantings about rapist Mexicans, s***hole countries in Africa and his self-proclaimed divine right to grab women by the p****.

And south of the border, Canada has indeed been adopted as a meme about common sense and decorum by those Americans appalled by their commander-in-chief, and who instead stare over the garden fence wet-eyed at dreamy Justin as he changes T-shirts.

But remember all those Americans who asked about immigrating to Canada on election day + 1? That’s not because they see Canada as wildly divergent from the American way of life, Trump notwithstanding. It’s because they see Canada as California On Ice.

It’s all well and good for John McCallum to be enthusiastic about his gig, and specifically the trade arena.

But 12 months of President Trump (really? Has it been only 12 months?) do not outweigh things like, say, Nato, nor that US$600 billion in trade, compared to about US$70 billion in Canadian trade with China in 2016.

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Political winds are fickle, which is the nature of representative democracy, another biggie that Canada shares with the US. Yet Trump does not negate all that came before him.

On the other hand, China remains an authoritarian one-party state, of the type that blows up churches and crushes dissent with vigour. There is no immediate prospect that this will change.

On January 16, a Chinese embassy spokesman laid down the law to anyone suggesting free trade negotiations with Canada might touch on issues like human rights. “China always maintains that non-trade issues should not be brought in the FTA negotiation no matter in what kind of name, for it is not conducive to talks on the basis of equality and fairness,” said Zhu Xiaozhong.

Unfortunately for Zhu and the free-trade cheerleaders, Canadians overwhelmingly disagree with the idea that it’s impossible to promote human rights while expanding economic relations. A 2017 UBC survey on attitudes towards China found this by almost three to one (67 per cent to 23 per cent who agree). And more Canadians agree than disagree with the idea that a free trade deal would be detrimental, because Chinese goods would out-compete Canadian products locally (45 per cent to 42 per cent).

Although 69 per cent agree with the general proposition of a China-Canada free trade deal, there remain big doubts in the public mind about an FTA, and China in general. Most Canadians (57 per cent) hold an unfavourable view of the country, the same survey found.

Beijing is playing hardball on trade, so perhaps this explains the Trudeau government’s conspicuous public silence on human rights in China.

When Trudeau went to China in December, it was fully expected that he and Premier Li Keqiang would announce the launch of formal trade talks. Instead, there was no deal and China cancelled the joint press conference after Trudeau’s meeting with Li. It was a startling snub.

This suggests China isn’t kidding when it rules out discussions on human rights as a precondition for trade talks. Given the power imbalance, it has no reason to bluff.

So, ironically, for all the maple syrup McCallum is trying to pour in Beijing’s ear, it will be China that sets the terms if Ottawa is unprepared to walk away, just as Premier Li did when he left Trudeau shuffling his feet in the Great Hall of the People. The ambassador’s remarks will have amounted to sweet nothings.


The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70 .