It was a nostalgic feeling last week to hear the names “Mulroney” and “Chretien” being batted around in the national news again, connected with each other.
The former Prime Ministers weren’t fighting, but rather Brian Mulroney was said to be lobbying present PM Justin Trudeau to dispatch Jean Chretien to China to try to fix things with the giant country. Chretien had friendly and successful trips to China during his time in power, and Mulroney thinks he could use those relationships and history to make things better. It’s hard to imagine Chretien making things worse, anyway, with Canada-China relations in the deep-freeze over the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, arrested in Vancouver on a U.S. warrant. (That presumes that he won’t be sent there with instructions to employ the infamous “Shawinigan handshake.)
He doesn’t have magical powers and nobody expects miracles if he goes, but maybe it would be the excuse China needs to de-escalate the present dispute, which has backed-up millions of tonnes of canola on the Prairies and threatens to depress prices for years to come. Does China want to de-escalate? There’s no public sign of that. But we can hope that at some point the Chinese leadership realizes it might want friendlier relations with middle powers like Canada if the trade war and geopolitical struggle with the U.S. continues or gets worse. China’s economy isn’t doing great, its pig herd is collapsing, and some major commodities it buys are getting expensive as non-U.S. sellers have China over a barrel. Mellowing things with Canada might alleviate a bit of that stress.
Also, China might figure out that being belligerent with Canada essentially drives Canada into the arms of the U.S., despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s rough words during the NAFTA renegotiations and the recently relieved steel and aluminum tariffs. Forced to choose one way or the other, Canada’s always going to side with the U.S. That’s not in China’s long term interest if it wants to challenge U.S. hegemony.
So maybe Chretien could be Our Man in Beijing at some point. When? I can’t imagine him going before the Chinese government signals to Ottawa that it wants a visit like that. But China might want to act in the next couple of months, because Andrew Scheer is making it sound like a Conservative government would be less friendly and cooperative with Beijing than JT’s Liberals have been, so the chance to move on some sort of de-escalation might be now.