Canada’s relationship with China not dead

With a heavy November snow falling, smiles were everywhere.

Chilly weather wasn’t enough to cool the optimism that gripped a group of Canadian farmers’ international representatives as they shared delicacies made from Canadian beef, pork, canola, grain and other prairie farm products in a park in central Winnipeg.

These political, government, industry and farmer reps thought the coming weeks were going to see a pivot away from recent frightening threats to Canada’s agricultural exports to a better future of more balanced international trade.

This was November 2018, a delegation of these reps was about to fly off to China, and the main concern was strengthening the friendship and relationship with the Chinese because of the beating given to Canada by the United States in the NAFTA renegotiations. I was there, and I remember feeling very optimistic about the prospects for Canadian ag exports. It felt like there was a new day rising from out of the dark night of the NAFTA renegotiations.

Well, we all know how that worked out. All the hopes and plans were dashed in early December after China erupted because of the detention in Canada of a Chinese executive on a U.S. extradition warrant. Early in 2019 China blocked Canadian canola sales, following that up with effective bans on Canadian pork and beef in the months after.

So much for a pivot and hopes for more balanced trade.

But even though that reset to Canada’s trade reality was cancelled by events, there’s a chance again to hope that something can work out both with China and in broadening Canada’s markets.

The Liberal government has been re-elected, and its conciliatory tone toward China is probably appreciated by a Chinese leadership getting slapped often and publicly by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

China doesn’t have any real friends and it’s showing signs that it might be realizing it’s lonely out there when nobody likes you. (Lots of people like China’s money, but that’s a different matter.)

China is seeing anti-China feelings grow in the U.S., among Democrats as much as Republicans. It’s beginning to see evidence that its aggressive actions and words with foreign trading partners don’t always work.

And in Canada and other western nations, China has seen some politicians gain support by offering a tougher line on China. That’s what Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives were offering Canada, and they picked up momentum in the past year. The Conservatives are the government-in-waiting.

I wrote a column on the eve of the election saying that Canada’s international trade leaders would have no time to bask in the thrill of victory nor wallow in the agony of defeat about the election results, but needed to get out into the world marketplace pronto and keep building Canada’s non-U.S. and non-China footholds. Canadian farmers’ exposure to the giant markets has proven to be disastrously risky and the international trade and foreign ministers need to get out and help build bridges.

Since the election, International Trade Minister Jim Carr has been diagnosed with blood cancer and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has been promoted to Deputy Prime Minister. That takes their hands off the export files.

This brings in Francois-Philippe Champagne to foreign affairs and Mary Ng to international trade.

Carr and Freeland have been champions of Canadian trade, but Ng and Champagne could offer a fresh energy and dynamism to their portfolios. When I met Champagne a few years ago, when he was international trade minister, he had just learned about the story of canola’s creation and was ebullient about it. He seemed delighted about canola as an example of Canadian innovation and wanted to talk about it.

That kind of energy creates a good sales person and perhaps some of his time as foreign affairs minister will be spent on selling our story to others.

I don’t know Ng, but she is highly regarded in Liberal circles. Plus, as a woman born in Hong Kong, she probably has a nuanced sense of Chinese realities that another minister might take months or years to develop.

Perhaps Canada’s farmers have been handed a new team of representatives that cannot only get overseas to new markets and sell Canada’s story, but also deal with China in a way that defuses some of the tensions that have made this past year such a disappointment.

Canadian farmers and the agriculture industry were hopeful a year ago at this time. Nobody’s that hopeful today.

But perhaps we’ll be surprised by how things develop. After all, nobody in agriculture expected to be hit with the cluster bomb dropped by the Meng Wanzhou arrest last year.

This coming year could hold surprises too, and farmers are due some good ones.

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