Canola: it’s nice to matter (during the PM’s trip to China)



In the lead-up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to China this week I was watching half-hopefully and half-cynically to see how the canola-to-China dispute would be handled.

The hopeful part of me said: JT understands how important exports and commodities are to the Canadian economy, so he won’t ignore China’s threatened strangulation of Canadian canola. Plus he seems to want to show that a Liberal government can represent all the regions of the country, rather than just its traditional eastern Canadian bastion, and that western concerns also can be seen as national concerns.

The cynical part of me said: JT wants a big success in China. He wants to be seen reviving his family’s name for building bridges with sometimes antagonistic foreign powers like China, as his father did. If canola could mess that up, he’ll throw it under the bus.

I’m happy to see my hopeful side is being rewarded and my cynical side sent to the corner. A couple of weeks before the trip the federal government began pushing the canola dispute out front and has kept up that publicity. And it hasn’t just been with bureaucrats, negotiators or other officials. International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and JT himself have attached themselves to the issue, rather than backing away, so that builds the pressure on the Chinese to make some concessions if they want the trip to be a success for the Canucks and not leave them humiliated. The Chinese understand humiliation.

Some might scoff at the idea that China would care about Canadian sensitivities or be concerned about this nation’s feelings towards it, but the Chinese are in fact keen to build better relations with countries it both relies upon for commodities – and that it wants to ease away from American dependency. The Chinese are trying to build a free trade zone, dominated by China, and it is encouraging countries like Canada to think about joining it. The Chinese government doesn’t like seeing the U.S.-dominated Trans Pacific Partnership (possibly) being built all around its edges, so it has an incentive to lure key U.S. trading partners into a closer relationship with China.

That would be good for Canada too. While TPP will shore-up our access to the U.S. markets and improve access to Japan and other key markets, improving access to China should also be a key strategic objective for Canada. We have all seen what happens when small interests within the U.S. manage to manipulate its political system to ban certain Canadian agricultural imports. Right now, with the U.S. by far the dominant export market, Canada is both incredibly insecure and powerless to put effective pressure on the U.S. government if it acts up. Lowering that absolute dependance would make Canada more secure, and China could be key to that.

But if the Chinese play dirty on canola, as they appear presently to be doing over Canadian canola, in order to manipulate the domestic economic situation, why would Canada ever see China as a potentially trustworthy free trade partner? That’s the ace in JT’s hand. The Chinese need to show good faith, and canola could be the key to that.

So let’s hope something gets sorted out in the next couple of days while the prime minister is in China, something that both preserves Canadian canola’s access to the Chinese market and which allows the Chinese to feel like they have achieved something. Then everyone can do a happy photo op.

But even if the Canadian government fails to get a deal on canola, it’s been nice to see that it is willing to consider something like canola to be sufficiently important as a national product to inject into a key foreign policy initiative and put high on the agenda. It has not always been thus.



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