H-Diplo Article Review Forum 870 on “China and Canada’s Relationship.”

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H-Diplo Article Review Forum
No. 870
5 July 2019

Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

“China and Canada’s Relationship.”  International Journal 73:3 (September 2018):  343-463.


Reviewed by:

Jennifer Hsu, Independent Historian
Jingdong Yuan, University of Sydney



Introduction by Paul Evans, University of British Columbia

Americans rarely pay much attention to the Canadian approach to China. It surfaced on the agenda of senior policy makers when Ottawa and Beijing established diplomatic relations in 1970 (nine years before the U.S. did), later when Vice-President Richard Cheney expressed concerns about a major Chinese play in the Canadian energy sector, and recently when the Trump negotiators insisted on article 32:10 in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMC) agreement (Canadians prefer to call it NAFTA 2.0) that made any future Canada-China Free Trade Agreement subject to a de jure American veto.

The December 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of the Huawei Technologies, in Vancouver on an American extradition warrant and the subsequent train of events may change that. The reverberations are producing the biggest rift in Canada-China relations since Tiananmen Square in June 1989. They are also throwing a spotlight on Canada-U.S. relations including but far beyond the terms of their extradition treaty. Canada is now caught squarely in the vortex of the deepening Sino-U.S. rivalry, Huawei and 5G the first salvo in the battle to dominate the technologies of the fourth Industrial Revolution.

As the reviews by Jennifer Hsu and Yuan Jingdong make clear, Canada, like other countries around the world is being forced into taking positions and making choices it would very much like to avoid, all the while aware that these events are taking place amidst the unraveling of a multilateral international order from which it has benefited from and which it helped build. 

The thoughtful essays collected here are recent additions to a well-developed subset of academic writings on Canadian foreign policy. The oeuvre is heavily descriptive, intrigued by the historical evolution of Canadian policy, determined to find something distinctive about Ottawa’s approach and achievements in working with China before and after diplomatic recognition in 1970, and often frustrated in the last two decades by successive governments which have been unwilling or unable to articulate the coherent China or Asia Pacific policy that the authors recommend.  Even an elaboration of the Middle Power role that is touted by Hsu and Yuan in their reviews and by a host of Canadian academics has not been part of the rhetoric of either the Harper or Trudeau governments.

Will this change in the wake of the Meng affair and this new era of techno-nationalism and deepening U.S-China competition? Will we need a new generation of scholarship to take account of these developments, set them in a very new context, and offer some sensible prescriptions?

Three conclusions emerge from the essays.

First, Canada is not Australia even if Canadian academics and policy makers occasionally have a bad case of Australia-envy centred on the level of Australian trade with China and the intensity and openness of its policy debates. Without a single reference to Canada, Nick Bisley underlines several of the commonalities including the shared dilemmas of middle-ranked middle-powers depending on an American security guarantee, internally conflicted about how to interpret President Xi Jinping’s China and react to it, terrified by the unpredictability and disruptive policies of President Donald Trump’s America First, and favouring an engage and hedge approach to China rather than containment or decoupling.[1] 

The differences are more intriguing—an Australian academic and policy debate about China that is more intense, sophisticated and polarized and, at least until now, a more desperate quality of anxiety, fear, and dependence in Australian strategic culture. If Australia is positioned in “a golden straight jacket of interdependence” with China, Canada’s straitjacket of dependence on the U.S. is especially painful at the moment with major tariffs on Canadian exports of steel and aluminum still in place (383). Australia regularly prepares national commissions on relations with Asia and has produced hotly debated security, foreign policy and defence reviews with China centre stage. Canada has not produced a serious foreign policy statement since 2005 and, other than a few academics, no one is calling for one. Former Australian ministers and prime ministers routinely wade into China and Asia policy matters. Australia struggles with nuance and flexibility in its China policy; Canada struggles with clarity and is usually satisfied with carefully crafted ambiguity.

Of choices, decisions, activities, speeches, occasional statements and even accomplishments, there have been many. But of an over-arching strategy of the kind that the U.S. or Australia regularly articulate, the cupboard is bare. Kim Nossal is right in claiming that Ottawa has been “a-strategic” in its approach, largely reactive and, whether it is said or not, unlikely to shift away from an overwhelming obsession with our American neighbour and our lingering connections across the Atlantic.[2]

Comparison of the Canadian and Australian approaches is indeed easy, as Jennifer Hsu notes. The bilateral dialogue she recommends has occasionally proven useful at the level of senior officials but has never been sustained for very long at the academic and track two levels—the victim of widely different starting points, competing initiatives, and an enduring sibling rivalry.

Second, all of the essays were written before the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. 2019 is working out to be the Canadian equivalent of Australia’s annus horribilis a decade earlier. The result has been Chinese outrage at the arrest of one of its citizens at the request of American authorities; detention of two Canadians by the Ministry of State Security in apparent retaliation; mutual travel adversaries; intemperate remarks by a Chinese ambassador; the resignation of Canada’s ambassador to China; announcement of the decision to execute a Canadian convicted in China of drug trafficking; incensed anti-China comments in the Canadian media that have been more than equalled by vitriol in Chinese social and official media; a slowdown in business relations including the cancellation of major canola contracts; and senior political meetings frozen.

A recent public opinion poll conducted by the University of British Columbia found a precipitous slide in Canadian favourable views of China, heightened anxiety about rising Chinese presence and influence at home, and a new skepticism about China’s future economic prospects. But it also detected a similarly sharp decline in favourable views of the U.S., albeit from a higher base, and that Canadians still see expanding cooperation with China in terms of global issues like climate change and peacekeeping to be the second highest priority for the government. A surprising 64% still support a Canada-China Free Trade Agreement.[3]

The Meng extradition case will take months and possibly years to work its way through the Canadian legal system. This is not just a nasty and long-lasting winter storm in bilateral relations—it has the potential to define a new normal, the political equivalent of climate change. 

It is unlikely than in an election year refashioning China policy will be a major priority for the Trudeau government. Engagement based on the proposition that it will produce political liberalisation or the adoption of Western-style capitalism in China is no longer credible. And there is a new awareness of China’s power and its willingness to use that power assertively when it feels necessary. It will be no easy matter to frame a post-engagement strategy that emphasises living with China rather than befriending or changing it, especially when emotions are so raw, media opinion so negative, and American pressure so palpable.

One set of decisions that cannot be long postponed focus on a potential ban of Huawei’s participation in the rollout of Canada’s 5G transmission system. There are complicated technical and security issues in play and a full-court press from the U.S. for Canada to impose a ban has had Australia.

Canada is being pulled into the trade, technology, and geo-political conflict that the Trump administration is waging with China. Huawei is one dot on the much larger screen of techno-nationalism in which wide sectors of advanced technology are being restricted. Underpinning the techno-nationalism is a fear of rising Chinese capabilities, a feeling that China has advanced at America’s expense, and the view that China is a threat not only because of its foreign policy assertiveness but because its sharp power is an existential threat to American institutions and values.

Framing China as the adversary or enemy in the mode of Vice-President Mike Pence’s Hudson speech in October 2018 has not been Ottawa’s wish.[4] Canada does not want Cold War 2.0, the dismantling of global supply chains, techno-nationalism, decoupling, de-investments and deeper restrictions. And policy makers see the necessity of working with China on a host of global issues, including climate change, peacekeeping and pandemics.

As Gregory Chin carefully dissects in his essay, pressures from the United States have been a major force in earlier decisions on Chinese FDI in Canada.[5] In past there was reluctant acceptance of American pressure; in the wake of the Meng affair the level of reluctance could be much reduced.

Third, the essays leave us with a big question: after calling for a strategy, clearer guidelines, what should be done? Stephen Smith is a member of a younger generation of emerging China scholars who have grown up in an era in which what Jeremy Paltiel calls ”the tectonic shifts reordering power on a planetary scale” is not just a possibility but a palpable geo-political reality.[6] China for Smith’s generation is a global presence (363). It is the era of Xi Jinping’s China Dream and its selective revisionism confronting Donald Trump’s America First. It is the era of the great disruption in the institutions and norms of world order. The rules of right behaviour are in flux and China is going to be a major player in defining them. 

Smith offers a bold alternative to the voices of disengagement, containment, and confrontation. He makes the case for taking up the middle power aspiration to adjust to a shifting balance of power and influence and redefine the world order in which we are operating. Drawing on the English School of international theory, he proposes that we focus not on preserving a liberal international order that is unraveling but creating a new one. There is a consonance between English school and Chinese thinking that the American-anchored order of the last 70 years was not ‘the’ international order but ‘an’ international order, the rules and practices in constant flux. The idea of ‘symbiosis,’ which is drawn from evolutionary biology, is his alternative to the physics that underpins realist concepts like polarity, power balances and power vacuums. 

With an election looming in October, major turbulence in the Prime Minister’s office and caucus, the current diplomatic chill with China and the heated state of elite opinion about China, this is not the ideal moment for the articulation of a bold new China policy. From a grand policy perspective, there is a temptation to wait for passions to subside in the bilateral rift with China as the weight of the relationship, the provincial and municipal initiatives chronicled by Charles-Louis Labreque and Scott Harrison, the weight of people to people, educational and business activities all carry forward.[7] Canadians can wait with fingers crossed that post-Trump America will revert to the America they came to know and support. A re-elected Trudeau government could get back to its initial pro-engagement and pro-diversification ambitions.

But a new China policy will be inescapable for whatever government comes to power next. The message from all of these essays is that a policy statement is essential, that an engagement narrative needs to be reformulated or replaced, and that there is a foundation in the public and at sub-national levels for a strong relationship.

The Meng affair shows how events can shake the foundations of even long held assumptions and policies. It is widely believed that the U.S. has thrown Canada under the bus in its own geo-political fight with China and its leading tech companies. Others see Canada and other allies being tied reluctantly to the back bumper of a bus roaring into a long-term confrontation. Others now want to get on that bus.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau approached China as one part of ending or at least mitigating the last Cold War; his son Justin Trudeau, or his successor, will be wrestling with how to mitigate or avoid a second one and being dragged into a full-scale confrontation with China that many in Ottawa still see as unwise and unnecessary.

Stay tuned.



Paul Evans teaches Asian and trans-Pacific international relations at the University of British Columbia. He earlier taught at York University and has had visiting appointments at Harvard, the University of Hong Kong and Singapore Management University. He directed the Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Toronto, the Institute of Asian Research and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC, and from 2005-08 served as the Co-CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. His most recent book Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper. He is a frequent adviser and commentator on Canadian policy in Asia and is currently working on a second installment of his 1988 biography of John Fairbank looking at his contemporary significance as historian, institution builder, and policy player thirty years after his death and in an era of downturn in U.S.-China relations.

Jennifer Y.J. Hsu is a writer, scholar and researcher. She recently completed a visiting fellowship in the Department of Social Policy at the LSE and was previously associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. She has written and researched extensively about Chinese civil society, non-governmental organisations and development. Her most recent book, State of Exchange: Migrant NGOs and the Chinese Government (UBC Press) is about the role of Chinese migrant NGOs in re-shaping state-society relations. She is currently researching on the impact of voluntary activities on notions of citizenship in China.

Jingdong Yuan is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. Dr. Yuan’s research focuses on Indo–Pacific security, Chinese foreign policy, Sino–Indian relations, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. He has held visiting appointments at the National University of Singapore, University of Macau, East–West Center, National Cheng-chi University, Mercator Institute for China Studies, Fudan University, and Berlin Social Sciences Centre (WZB). He is the co-author of Chinese Cruise Missiles: A Quiet Force-Multiplier (2014) and China and India: Cooperation or Conflict? (2003), and co-editor of Australia and China at 40 (2012). His publications have appeared in Asian Survey, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Contemporary Security Policy, International Affairs, International Journal, Journal of Contemporary China, Journal of International Affairs, Nonproliferation Review, Washington Quarterly, and in many edited volumes. He is currently working on a book manuscript on China–South Asian relations.



Review by Jennifer Hsu, Independent Scholar

As the U.S. administration under President Donald Trump continues to redefine its relationship with nations and alliances around the world and withdraw from multilateral agreements ranging from the global climate change accord to the U.N. Human Rights Council, what becomes of the U.S. as a global leader? The consequences of this shake-up are numerous, but in the context of the six articles in the International Journal on China, there are two broad issues at stake for middle powers like Canada and Australia. First, does this provide space for China to be a potential leader to fill the void left by the U.S. under Trump’s administration? Second, what does this shift in global dynamics mean for Canada and Australia in terms of their relationship with China? China is certainly making its mark in areas which the Trump administration has shunned. For example, China has vowed to uphold the Paris climate change accord, and to establish more external strategic investments as embodied by the ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’ Such changes have caused angst and consternation amongst Canadian and Australian policy makers, who must face the questions as to how to engage with a power that is fundamentally different in its political structures and ideological heritage.

The six articles, five of which focus on Canada and one on Australia, provide insight into the similarities shared by these two middle powers. With so many parallels between the two, it is a pity that more of a comparison is not made. Both Canada and Australia share a colonial heritage, similar federal governing structures, large land masses with relatively small populations, experience in a commodities boom and a subsequent dependence on commodity exports, significant increases in their housing markets, targeted immigration policies, and relatively open to trade and capital flow. These last few similarities all intersect with the rise of China and an increasingly mobile Chinese middle class. The journal issue begins with Jeremy Paltiel’s essay arguing for a Canada that must adapt to a new international order by recommitting to multilateral internationalism.[8] While Paltiel urges a renewal of the institutions that ought to define Canada-China relations, Kim Richard Nossal observes the ambivalence that has pervaded this relationship which at the same time is hampered by Canada’s predilection to the North Atlantic alliance.[9] Nick Bisley teases out the factors that have shaped Australia’s relationship with China over the last three decades, where security concerns and economic benefits seem irreconcilable.[10] Similarly, Gregory Chin’s paper draws out this dichotomy in the Canadian case by focusing on key Chinese investment attempts in Canada.[11] Charles-Louis Labrecque and Scott Harrison provide an alternative view to Canada-China relationship by focusing on engagement at the sub-national level.[12] And finally, Stephen Smith’s paper outlines the broader frameworks that are shaping China’s “new assertiveness” with Xi Jinping at the helm.[13] While these six papers present invaluable insights into the inner workings of policy makers and diplomats as to Canada’s relationship with China, this review essay shifts its focus to a more comparative nature. It is hoped that this piece is the beginning of a more frequent conversation between the two nations’ scholars, policy makers, and the general public on how to move forward in a new world for middle powers like Canada and Australia.

The articles in this issue of International Journal by and large agree that there is a certain level of ambivalence and vagueness that pervades the Canada-China relationship. As Nossal writes, that vagueness is characterised by a “lack of a systematic and strategic approach to China” (369), or, in the case of Chinese takeover bids of Canadian companies, a “wary ambivalence,” according to Chin (401). However, the recent arrest on Canadian soil of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, at the behest of U.S. authorities, forces Canada into a position that can no longer be ambivalent. The Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times has expressed outrage at Canada’s action: “Canada cannot fool China with its simple excuse of an independent legal system, and, given China’s strong response and the tempest of public protest it has caused, the move will not bode well for Canada in many aspects. And so far Canada has done little to correct its mistake.”[14] Chin’s article also alludes to the potential impact of the U.S. in previous Canadian decisions on Chinese takeover bids of Canadian companies: “Canadian news media reported that US officials voiced concerns, behind the scenes, about the Chinese takeover, and warned that Aecon would not be allowed to bid on the Gordie Howe Bridge or other bilateral infrastructure” (425). 

The United States claims that Huawei had violated the U.S. embargo with Iran, hence the arrest of Meng. Inadvertently, Canada finds itself in the middle of a trade war between the U.S. and China. This incident clearly highlights the dilemma as noted by the authors with regards to finding the balance in a changing world order, particularly as the U.S. and China become increasingly adversarial, as demonstrated by the recent trade war between the two and amplified by Meng’s arrest.

Canada’s ambivalence towards China is no longer an option, at least not in the Huawei incident. Paltiel argues that Canada finds it difficult to articulate a coherent China strategy, in part because of China’s deliberate vagueness or openness in its engagement with other countries through initiatives such as the Belt and Road. The vague rhetoric as espoused by Chinese President Xi Jinping gives China flexibility to manoeuvre, forge and cement relationships where needed. This flexibility is problematic for Canada: “Middle powers like Canada provide reliable middle managers to the global project. Without a coherent vision from the top, however, middle management is starved of a reliable role” (361). However, in the Huawei case, Canada is implicated by the Chinese as siding with the U.S., and subsequent retaliatory measures taken by China to detain two Canadians have forced Canada into an uncomfortable and an “unlucky” position, where China is seemingly aiming at Canada rather than the U.S. to force the release of Meng.[15] Whatever the Huawei circumstances maybe, Canada can renew and recommit to multilateral internationalism, as Paltiel advocates in his article. Adherence to norms and institutions is key to assisting Canada to regain its position and enunciate a clearer policy for engaging with China. As noted in the Huawei case, the Canadian government has been at pains to make clear the procedural processes and rights of the detained: “The person sought is able to challenge their extradition at multiple levels, both before the superior and appellate courts in Canada, and by making submissions to me [Canada’s Justice Minister] on the issue of surrender.”[16] Whether this is acceptable for China is a different question. There are not many options available to Canada at present, but to hold steadfast to a process governed by institutions and legal procedure.  Nonetheless, past and present focus on the U.S. in trade and foreign policy will continue to impact Sino-Canadian relations. As the global order shifts largely in response to the U.S. under Trump, the United States will continue to be a challenge for Canada, both in terms of its relationship with China but also as the U.S. seeks to renegotiate its trade policies with Canada.

Similar to Canada, Australia is also a close ally of the U.S., and its engagement with China is also complicated by the interaction of global and domestic forces. Perhaps dissimilar to the situation in Canada is that Australia has had to articulate a distinct strategy towards China, largely due to the fact that it is pulled towards China economically and thus Australia’s economic and strategic interests are at times misaligned, as Bisley’s article notes. Recent public debate in Australia about China’s interference in Australian politics—with subsequent foreign interference laws passed by parliament and coming into effect—and more broadly, the impact of China’s development on the Australian economy and society resulted in a clearer approach with regards to China, compared to their Canadian counterparts. The relative ease in the early phase of Australia’s China strategy consisted of compartmentalising policies into either political-strategic or economic portfolios. This strategy is now outdated and ineffective, especially as China’s overseas economic interests are often entwined with that of the state and the Chinese Communist Party. Bisley suggests that Australia’s struggle in making appropriate policies with regards to China is due to its inability to take Australian values and principles out of the equation (398). Former China correspondent for Australia’s Fairfax Media, John Garnaut acknowledges the dilemma that values and principles bring for Australia’s engagement with China. Yet, Garnaut argues it is precisely these factors that will enable Australia to succeed in devising a coherent China policy spanning both economic and political realms: “Australia will succeed in pushing back against authoritarian interference to the extent that we work with the strengths and shore up the vulnerabilities of our open, multicultural, democratic systems. This can only be achieved within a framework of principles that can secure a broad and durable consensus, within countries and between them.”[17] Such analysis seems to be at odds with Smith’s argument that the peaceful rise of China is largely dependent on China being accorded more space to develop its norms on development, governance and interstate relations (450). How to proceed with this dilemma where norms and values differ between Australia/Canada and China is at the heart of this journal issue. Perhaps the answer lies beyond the subnational level.

As Australia and Canada continue to grasp the changing global order as middle powers and manage the increasing complexities that China brings to their relationship with it, other stakeholders below the sub-national level are carving out their own relationships with China. Canadian provinces have demonstrated their capacity to defend their economic interests and pronounce their own policies through agreements such as twinning provinces or cities (437). The pro-activeness of sub-national actors ought to be praised. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether such activities will lead to a dilution or fragmentation of a national policy framework, should one ever emerge, in Canada’s engagement with China, or whether they might serve as a reference point for federal policy makers. Whatever the case, Labrecque and Harrison conclude that this “paradiplomacy” will remain a feature of Canadian international relations (448).

To achieve coherence in the future of Australia/Canada and China relations will depend on both parties clarifying their positions vis-à-vis the other. This clarification may come in the form of strengthening and defining the institutions, norms, and values that matter to the nation. However, it will also require delicate dialogue and, ultimately, compromise when norms and values differ. This is no easy task. Paltiel’s concluding words best sum up the potential future perils for both Canada and Australia: “Without a well-thought-out engagement strategy, we are condemned to be sidelined as bystanders in the tectonic shifts reordering power on a planetary scale” (363).



Review by Jingdong Yuan, University of Sydney

This special issue of International Journal could not have come at a more opportune time. Published more than three years after Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party came into power, this collection of articles is both stocktaking of what the Trudeau government has accomplished, and presents a timely scholarly review and reflection of what the Pacific has meant for Canada, how Canada views, faces, and responds to an increasingly powerful and assertive China, including the latter’s more aggressive corporate practices, and how Canada’s subnational actors are seizing the economic opportunities even when (and indeed because of) the national policy from Ottawa appears to be ambivalent and wavering. Given the many similarities between the positions of Australia and Canada, Nick Bisley’s article on how Canberra manages its China relations offers an insightful comparison of the policy choices of the two middle powers and of how geography and geopolitics have influenced these choices.[18]

The issue begins with an article by Jeremy Paltiel which provides an overview of how the new Trudeau government has sought to restore Sino-Canadian relations after over nine years of a volatile and at time rather tense relationship.[19] Ottawa faces significant challenges at a time when both its capacity and normative compass are constrained. In the larger picture, the question becomes how China as a rising power could be integrated into the accepted international norms and institutions and where Canada as a middle power and indeed one that carries a proud badge as one of the very first western countries to establish diplomatic relations with China has a role in dealing with this question. Likewise, successive Canadian governments since the late 1960s, with the exception of the Stephen Harper government (2006-2015), can also claim to have played an active role in encouraging and assisting China’s return and gradual integration into international society. However, Trudeau’s efforts at both restoring Canada-China relations and returning to middle power diplomacy have to be reconciled with an increasingly more assertive China and a U.S. administration under President Donald Trump who has little respect for institutions and traditional alliances and partnerships as he pursues  his America First agenda. 

Kim Nossal’s article tells a cautionary tale of how Ottawa’s aspirations for its place in the Pacific Century have often had to contend with Canada’s tradition of anchoring its foreign policy in Atlanticism and its predominant economic interdependence with its powerful southern neighbour.[20] There was a brief period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when both the Conservative and Liberal governments in Ottawa played an active role in developing multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific and engaging in Track-II activities seeking to address some of the region’s security issues such the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea, as was the short-lived enthusiasm of embracing a Pacific Century with promising economic opportunities. The ambivalence in Canada’s Pacific turn has been reflected in the fact that Ottawa has few positions of influence in the region’s many important institutions. Nor has Canadian diplomacy toward the Asia-Pacific, from Stephen Harper’s indifference to Trudeau’s missteps in some of his forays into the region, advanced Ottawa’s case that Canada is a Pacific nation. Nossal concludes that old habits die hard, as Atlanticism remains the anchor of Canadian foreign policy whereas the Pacific attracts inadequate government attention and resources.

Gregory Chin’s article discusses a different but no less serious challenge that Canada faces: aggressive Chinese corporate takeovers of Canada’s companies and the resultant threat to Canada’s economic sovereignty.[21] This is taking place at a time of unprecedented globalization where the Canadian economy is closely integrated into the international economy and free trade has already exposed Canadian companies to such practices. However, whereas past opposition to and concerns over foreign takeovers were largely confined to economic considerations, Chinese takeovers present, or are perceived to be presenting, national security challenges. While welcoming foreign investments in Canada, Ottawa remains wary of those by state-owned enterprises that have close connection with the Chinese government. Chin concludes by pointing out that Canada needs to determine whether China’s rise offers opportunities or presents serious challenges and make its decisions accordingly.

While analyses of foreign policy and international relations typically focus on interest, goals, and strategies at the national level, Charles-Louise Labrecque and Scott Harrison explore an under-studied topic in their article on Canada’s provincial relations with the Asia-Pacific. Focusing on economic issues and driven by considerations over local employment and prosperity, some of Canada’s provinces have become rather active in pursuing their own international relations with the region.[22] Provincial governments represent and promote economic interests that may not command national attention; at other times, when bilateral relations stalemate at the national level, sub-national interactions continue. This (economic) autonomy and sub-national diplomacy is written into the Canadian constitution, allowing Canadian provinces to pursue and promote their economic interests and activities ranging from trade and investment to tourism and cultural exchanges. Geography and natural endowments matter: British Columbia, for instance, was among the first Canadian provinces to publish their own Asia-specific strategy. Clearly, its location as the gateway to the Pacific and its large number of Asian migrants give it a unique perspective on Asia. Likewise, Alberta as the energy-rich province, naturally is interested in seeking foreign markets for its staples of export. One important point that the two authors raise is that disappointment at federal policy toward Asia also provides strong incentives for some of Canada’s provinces to formulate and promote their own regional policy.

In many ways Australia and Canada are a comparable pair: both are middle powers, liberal democracies, with market-economies that highly dependent on international trade and foreign investment, and longstanding U.S. allies. Like Canada, Australia was among the first western countries to establish diplomatic relations with China. Australia, though, has to balance its history and geography to seek a new balance between China, its new-found economic partner, and the U.S., its security guarantor. Bisley’s article nicely captures Canberra’s pursuit of a good and stable relationship with Beijing as being driven by both the economic bottom-line and a desire to see a rising China that is “compatible with the prevailing liberal international order” (382). While the former has strengthened and indeed entrenched the Australian economic fortune in China’s continued and dynamic economic growth, the hope that Beijing would be bound to “a status que international outlook” (383) has met with disappointment. Bisley presents some of the highlights in recent Australian China policy debates and concludes that it is becoming increasingly untenable to ‘ride two horses’ in charting a middle way between its two most consequential great-power partners. 

While the first five articles base their analyses from largely ‘Canadian-(and Australian-) centric’ perspectives, Stephen Smith’s seeks to shed light on some of the conventional wisdoms on China’s rise and to provide a nuanced understanding of Beijing’s perspectives on the international order and its efforts to pursue both power and legitimacy.[23] Smith’s analysis helps to uncover both the historical and ideational rationales behind China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. A civilization and great power in its own right, China’s recent emergence as a major power allows it to pursue both material and normative objectives. While not openly challenging or seeking to replace the current international order, from which it has benefited enormously, Beijing is offering an alternative economic development model and presenting a Sino-centric regional order that promotes economic integration while allowing continued co-existence of different socio-political systems. Whether this ‘China model’ offers an alternative or is perceived to be presenting a serious threat to the existing international order and therefore is unacceptable is debateable. But the more difficult question is what to do about it.

While this collection of articles describes the challenges that Canada (and for that matter, Australia) faces, and the opportunities (primarily economic) China’s rise offers, the drivers of Ottawa’s (and Canberra’s) China policy and consequently the theoretical and policy implications for Canadian and Australian national interests can be better understood in terms of middle power diplomacy, partisan/ideological divides, geography, leadership skills, and the external conditions under which Canadian and Australian policies are formulated and implemented.

As middle powers, both Canada and Australia rely on diplomatic entrepreneurship to promote multilateral institutions and rules-based international/regional order. Middle-power diplomacy has been a key driver of both Ottawa’s and Canberra’s motivation in engaging and encouraging China to join institutions and embrace established rules and norms. Both Canada and Australia have been active in promoting multilateralism; indeed, their Asia-Pacific diplomacy has largely been defined by institution-building, especially in the late 1980s and 1990s. Multilateral institutions in the region in turn have also opened the door to Canadian and Australian access to markets and hence growing stakes (especially for Australia) in the region’s wellbeing, for which peace and security is critical. However, as has been revealed (if not openly deplored) in several of the articles, middle-power diplomacy and indeed the ability to ‘socialize’ China has remained limited and certainly has not brought about the desired outcomes. Apart from the rise of China, the ascendency of Trump and his America First stance further undercuts middle-power diplomacy.

While no deliberate efforts have been expended in exploring whether, and to what extent, the political parties and ideologies (primarily represented by the conservative versus the liberal parties in the two countries), have influenced Canadian and Australian China policy, different partisan/ideological positions or inclination have had perceptible impacts. In Canada, Stephen Harper’s government (2006-2015) certainly revealed strong reservations  and indeed at times hostility toward China, while the current Coalition government in Canberra (2013-present) has had many difficulties in managing its relationship with China. Overall, the liberal parties in these two countries have tended to place more emphasis on multilateralism and have demonstrated more willingness to engage China and, for that matter, have presented a greater inclination toward the Asia-Pacific (for example, ‘Canada’s Year of Asia Pacific’ [1997] during the Liberal government of Jean Chretien; the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper under the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government of Julia Gillard in 2012). Granted, there have been exceptions: John Howard, Australian Prime Minister from 1996 to 2007, while downplaying the significance of multilateral institutions and placing greater emphasis on U.S.-Australian alliance, nonetheless managed to have a stable and growing relationship with China. In contrast, Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking Labour prime minister, witnessed a steep dive in bilateral relations during his short tenure (2007-2010). Clearly, partisan/ideological divides aside, leadership skills can make notable differences in Canada’s and Australia’s China policy.

Canada and Australia are both resource-rich countries but their international economic outlooks are largely defined and determined by geography. Geographical proximity gives Canada a unique and advantageous place in a continental economy anchored in the power of the United States. This natural economic interdependence at once allows Canada to an enormous market for its exports and closer integration to the American market, and places less pressure on it to look for alternative markets and economic partners. As a result, Canada and the U.S. remain each other’s number one largest trading partner, while Canada’s entire Pacific trade has remained relatively low (approximately C$170 billion in 2016). In contrast, geography has become Australia’s economic destiny. For Canberra, the Asian market has become indispensable for Australia’s economic growth and prosperity. In fact, the country’s economic fortunes are closely tied to that of Asia’s economic growth. Since 2010 China has been Australia’s largest trading partner, with annual bilateral merchandise trade exceeding A$180 billion. On top of that, Chinese tourists and students are major sources of revenue for Australia.

At the same time, geography makes Canada’s claim to be a Pacific country only aspirational; distance deters and discourages. But a more fundamental reason is more strategic cultural than geographical: by inclination, inertia, and resource commitments, Ottawa remains firmly anchored in Atlanticism—a triangular linkage across the Atlantic Ocean and the border to the South. Nor is Canada’s economy in serious enough jeopardy that it would become imperative to look for alternatives to the North American market. However, while geography offers Australia enormous economic fortune, it also seals its geostrategic fate where it must always rely an always distant great power for security. Canberra is torn between ‘greed and fear,’ especially when its economic prosperity and security are no longer guaranteed by one single great power with which it shares similar political, cultural and socio-economic commonalities but rather are provided by two great powers. Under the circumstance, its China policy becomes an effort of the near impossible—to maximise economic benefits from the same power against which it must guard and hedge for reasons of political autonomy and national security.

Finally, left unsaid, or not said enough in the articles under review, is the question of how external environments set the limit on, as well as encourage, Canada and Australia to pursue their China and, in the larger context, Asia-Pacific policies. While space does not allow a more detailed elaboration, suffice it to say that for both Canada and Australia, the nature of great-power relationships, in particular between China and the U.S., could have significant implications for their independent China policies. One could explain the growing difficulties in Australia-China relations in 2016-17 in the broader context of growing U.S.-China strategic rivalry. Likewise, the current tensions between Ottawa and Beijing can also be traced to the spat between Beijing and Washington; the detention in Canada of and extradition request for a Huawei executive has its origins in U.S. accusations of the Chinese tech company’s breach of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

China’s rise presents both opportunities and challenges for Ottawa and Canberra. This collection of articles provides timely analyses of how middle powers such as Canada and Australia have managed their China policies over the past few decades as the erstwhile backward, central-planning, communist country ascends to great-power status and a major player in the international system. The lessons drawn from these analyses could be useful as other stakeholders—by which I mean those which value and seek to preserve the norms and rules of international society—must understand and confront a rising power that is seeking its own legitimacy as much as it is offering alternative models of economic development and political order at the region (and in future international) level. If in the past, hope for socialization was based on confidence in the resilience of the existing liberal international order, the recognition that China may no longer be willing to be bound by the existing structure introduces a degree of urgency and the need to fully understand the nature, scope and scale of the China challenge, one that is reflective of the Sino-centricism. However, this growing Chinese power is still unlike the Soviet challenge during the Cold War that could easily rally balancing and opposition against. In essence, the China challenge, as these articles demonstrate, is as unique as it is complex, and has yet to be clearly defined.

© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Nick Bisley, “Australia’s Engagement with China: From Fear to Greed and back Again,” International Journal 73:3 (Hereafter IJ): 379-398.

[2] Kim Richard Nossal, “The North Atlantic Anchor: Canada and the Pacific Century,” IJ: 364-378.

[3] The poll results and interpretation from the February 2019 survey are available at https://sppga.ubc.ca/news/2019-2017-report-comparisons/. The questions posed were taken directly from a more comprehensive survey conducted 17 months earlier to provide baseline comparisons.

[4] “Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy toward China,” 4 October 2018. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-administrations-policy-toward-china/.

[5] Gregory T. Chin, “An Uncomfortable Truth: Canada’s Wary Ambivalence to Chinese

Corporate Takeovers,” IJ: 399-428.

[6] Stephen N. Smith, “Community of Common Destiny: China’s ‘‘New assertiveness’’ and the Changing Asian Order,” IJ: 449-463; Jeremy Paltiel, “Facing China: Canada between Fear and Hope,” International Journal 73:3 (Hereafter IJ): 343-363.

[7] Charles-Louis Labrecque and Scott Harrison, “Canadian Provinces and Foreign Policy in Asia,” IJ: 429-448.

[8] Jeremy Paltiel, “Facing China: Canada between Fear and Hope,” International Journal 73:3 (Hereafter IJ): 343-363.

[9] Kim Richard Nossal, “The North Atlantic Anchor: Canada and the Pacific Century,” IJ: 364-378.

[10] Nick Bisley, “Australia’s Engagement with China: From Fear to Greed and back Again,” IJ: 379-398.

[11] Gregory T. Chin, “An Uncomfortable Truth: Canada’s Wary Ambivalence to Chinese

Corporate Takeovers,” IJ: 399-428.

[12] Charles-Louis Labrecque and Scott Harrison, “Canadian Provinces and Foreign Policy in Asia,” IJ: 429-448.

[13] Stephen N. Smith, “Community of Common Destiny: China’s ‘‘New assertiveness’’ and the Changing Asian Order,” IJ: 449-463.

[14] Wang Cong, “If Canada Wants to Fool China with its Judicial Independence Excuse in Huawei CFO case, It’s Gravely Mistaken,” Global Times, 10 December 2018, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1131193.shtml.

[15] The Guardian, Editorial, 14 December 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/13/the-guardian-view-on-china-and-the-us-unlucky-canada-is-taking-the-hit.

[16] Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, quoted in Rahul Kalvapalle, “Trudeau’s Justice Minister Will Make Final Call on Meng Wanzhou Extradition—if Court Approves It,” Global News, 12 December 2018, https://globalnews.ca/news/4756109/meng-wanzhou-extradition-jody-wilson-raybould/.

[17] John Garnaut, “Australia’s China Reset,” The Monthly, August 2018, https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2018/august/1533045600/john-garnaut/australia-s-china-reset.

[18] Nick Bisley, “Australia’s Engagement with China: From Fear to Greed and back Again,” International Journal 73:3 (September 2018) [Hereafter IJ]: 379-398.

[19] Jeremy Paltiel, “Facing China: Canada between Fear and Hope,” IJ: 343-363.

[20] Kim Richard Nossal, “The North Atlantic Anchor: Canada and the Pacific Century,” IJ: 364-378.

[21] Gregory T. Chin, “An Uncomfortable Truth: Canada’s Wary Ambivalence to Chinese Corporate Takeovers,” IJ: 399-428.

[22] Charles-Louis Labrecque and Scott Harrison, “Canadian Provinces and Foreign Policy in Asia,” IJ: 429-448.

[23] Stephen N. Smith, “Community of Common Destiny: China’s ‘‘New assertiveness’’ and the Changing Asian Order,” IJ: 449-463.

Keywords: Canada, China