Options limited when dealing with a trade bully

The schoolyard bully has you cornered with his hands clasped around your throat. Do you:

  • Smile and pretend everything is fine?
  • Stay calm and try to reason with the bully?
  • Call for help from a dubious ally?
  • Capitulate and promise to hand over all your lunch money?
  • Kick him in the shins even though resistance seems futile?
  • Aim higher with your knee to inflict maximum effect?

So far the Trudeau government’s response to the Chinese bully choking off our agricultural commodities has been a combination of the first three options. The bully hasn’t wanted to hear what we have to say, but there’s been no retaliation. We haven’t been fighting back.

Government ministers have a deer in the headlights look as if they have no idea how to extricate the country from the mess triggered with the detention of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou.

Most farm groups haven’t been overtly critical of Canada’s approach, but many individual farmers bemoan a weak-kneed Canadian response.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer says Justin Trudeau has failed to stand up for Canada. “Like Donald Trump during NAFTA negotiations, China has learned it can walk all over Canada, without consequence, with Trudeau in charge. That has to end now,” said Scheer in a news release while Trudeau was attending the G20 summit in Japan.

Scheer wants to sound tough, but he doesn’t provide much practical advice other than pulling funding from the Asian Infrastructure Bank. That seems like a legitimate response, but it barely qualifies as even a kick in the shins.

Canada could file a complaint with the World Trade Organization, but that would take years and China could just ignore the WTO ruling at the end of the process. While it would be a way to express our displeasure, it would be largely symbolic.

Our only meaningful retaliation (aiming higher with a knee) would be tariffs or a ban on Chinese goods coming into Canada. That would certainly escalate the dispute, but it isn’t like we can inflict much economic damage on China.

As China targets Canadian agricultural products one by one, it’s already a significant cost to the country’s economy. They’re obviously willing to make that sacrifice. The loss of the Canadian market for their exports probably wouldn’t faze them. The Chinese haven’t blinked in the ongoing trade dispute with the United States and in that case they’re dealing with another bully.

Sadly, Canada’s best chance for an eventual resolution rests with the unpredictable bully U.S. President Donald Trump. Asking for help from this dubious ally is logical since it was the American extradition request that got us into this mess in the first place.

Unfortunately, Trump is all about America First so helping Canada won’t likely be very high on his list of priorities.

Opinions vary on whether Trump has the legal ability to drop the extradition order on Meng Wanzhou. Opinions also vary on whether Canada has the legal ability to ignore the American request.

However, in the court of public opinion, most people would be happy to see the Huawei executive set free, particularly if the U.S. continues to hang us out to dry on the issue. In the meantime, as individual consumers and businesspeople, let’s avoid buying anything imported from China. If we want to stand up to China, that’s a place for each of us to start.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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