Consider how to reengage China for when the time is right

Despite a massive roadblock between China and Canada, conversations on how to improve the trading relationship are worth having now.

The Canada West Foundation’s recent report entitled Re-engagement Strategies for China on Agricultural Issues makes some worthy suggestions on how to improve relations. It was written by Carlo Dade, CWF director of its Trade and Investment Centre and trade policy economist Sharon Zhengyang Sun.

The future of the trading relationship between Canada and China still hinges on the future of Canadians being held as prisoners in China.

China arrested and held Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in what is believed to be retaliation against Canada for arresting an executive of a Chinese company on behalf of the United States.

That context makes it difficult for Canada to thaw its relationship with China because it would be immoral to engage on the subject while two Canadians are being held unjustly by the Chinese government.

But as Dade says, “Canada should be prepared anyways.”

“Just to have a fair chance we have to prepare for every eventuality,” he said during a Nov. 3 briefing on the report. “Not engaging won’t get the hostages back. Not doing so won’t expedite their return. It will not improve their conditions.”

While the moral high ground would seek to end trade relations with a country that has imprisoned Canadian citizens for bogus reasons, it isn’t realistic. Canadian exporters need Chinese buyers.

Dade and Sun argue China is a country that claims to be “the epitome of long-term thinking” and Canada would do well to start pondering the long-term status of its relationship with China.

They note China’s significance to Canadian agriculture, particularly in the four western provinces, and suggest the two countries need one another more than many think.

China is Canada’s second-largest agricultural export customer. Meanwhile China, Dade says, is “deeply concerned about food security” and that means there is an argument to be made for how it deals with Canada, a reliable trading partner.

Of course, you can’t talk about relations between China and Canada without considering the U.S.

The so-called Phase One trade deal between China and the U.S. makes the former more food dependent on the latter, putting China in a position it likely doesn’t want to be in, says Dade.

As he put it: “For the Chinese who are engaged in an existential threat with the Americans, do you want to become dependent upon the United States for food supplies?”

This opens a door for Canada to suggest amicable relations between it and China are in the interest of both countries: Canada offers China insurance on its food security and producers lock in a massive export market.

“It’s a basis upon which to approach China to reconsider some of its current practices, not because we want them to — here is the key part of the report — but because in our analysis it’s in their self-interest,” Dade said. “If our self-interest and their self-interest aligns, then we may have the basis for something more sustainable.”

The authors suggest Canada can start improving the relationship by adopting several strategies now, such as by hiring more trade officials and food inspectors in China who can speak Mandarin.

Dade hopes the report spurs debate and discussion among stakeholders about how to best improve relations with China.

It is still unclear what will become of Kovrig and Spavor, but Canada would be well served to prepare itself to re-engage China — when the time is right to do so.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing

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