Canada can get back to business, carefully, with China

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig, his wife Vina Nadjibulla and sister Ariana Botha react following his arrival on a Canadian military plane at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. | Reuters/Chris Helgren photo

Now that the Meng-Michaels swap has taken place, is everything back to normal with China?

That’s going to occupy the minds of an awful lot of Canadian farmers, agriculture industry people and food folk as we walk past the epic three-year diplomatic crisis with China.

Figuring that out will take a long time. It’s hard to imagine that anybody will be comfortable believing that things will go back to a pre-Meng normal. There’s going to be a new normal, and that’s something that will only unfold as we live it.

I asked Charles Burton, a China expert with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, for his thoughts on the implications of the dispute’s resolution. This is what he told me:

“It is too soon to know how the return of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig will impact on Canada’s approach to China moving ahead. There are two strains of political opinion on this

“The first is that now that Kovrig and Spavor are safe, Canada needs to join our like-minded allies in standing up to China’s espionage and other malign activities in Canada and to disengage from China if China will not abide by the norms of the international rules-based order in diplomacy and trade.

“The second is to adopt an approach of co-operating in areas where we can, competing in other aspects, and confronting where necessary on challenges to our security and violations of human rights, such as the Uyghur genocide.

“But whatever the approach to China (that) Canada adopts going forward, it is hard to establish trust with the People’s Republic of China when the possibility of economic coercion by arbitrary violations of agricultural export contracts persists.

“And the Chinese government has made clear that hostage diplomacy is still part of their international political (toolbox.)”

There’s the rub. Trade can probably resume as before, but fundamental differences between China and Canada are too obvious to wish away, as we might have tended to do pre-Meng.

Canada produces a lot of agricultural goods it wants to sell to China. China has a lot of agricultural goods it needs from places like Canada. That’s a solid basis for business.

But there can be no deep economic integration between Canada and China like we have with the CUSMA trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico, and that we have to a lesser degree with the European Union, the members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and even just the rules-following members of the World Trade Organization.

Trade and business are back on with China, but it’s never again likely to seem like the place we can hitch our hopes and dreams upon. China has gone from seeming like a gigantic opportunity for Canada on multiple fronts to being an almost perfect balance of opportunity and risk.

Let’s get back to business, but let’s be more careful this time.

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