Canada-China: The ground is shifting; Canada must adjust - Pascale Massot

Posted on Thursday, June 6, 2019



Chinese and Canadian chess kings head to head on a chessboard

We have entered an era of complex polycentric global governance, where imperfectly delineated areas of the global order respond to their own sets of dynamics and are home to distinct interest coalitions. There is deepening antagonism in U.S.-China relations. China is set to play a determining, yet variable, role in almost all global issues, sometimes aligned with Canadian interests, sometimes not. As a consequence, Canada must transform its approach to China into an “adaptive relationship”; one that modifies character and tone across different issue-areas. Canada’s China policy also needs to be spirited (resolute about core interests to maintain or reinforce), targeted (no blanket statements), accurate (reflecting reality on the ground, operating with realistic expectations) and perceptive (about likely Chinese interpretations).


Canada-China relationship needs to be transformed from a binary “on” or “off” relationship into an adaptive, modular relationship, both in our dealings with China at the global level, triangulating our relationship with the U.S. and China, and within the confines of our bilateral relationship.


  • Recent fluctuations between “hot” and “cold” Canada-China relations have resulted in a lack of baseline continuity in Canadian China policy. More hawkish China policy has resulted in years of reduced political engagement.
  • Official China narratives have tended to be binary (i.e. “trade vs. human rights”), unrefined (i.e. mostly about prosperity or mostly about values), and amalgamated (i.e. positive/negative).


  • We have entered a period of complex polycentric global governance in terms of geographies, stakeholders and issue-areas. Complex polycentric global governance means that different, not neatly delineated areas of the global order will respond to their own sets of multilevel dynamics. China will play a wide range of roles across global issues, at times obstructionist or disruptive, at times innovating and at other times supportive of existing institutions.
  • Within the span of a couple of decades, China went from an almost complete outsider to the second most dominant economy in the world, the main manufacturer of most goods, the largest consumer of commodities, the largest contributor to global GDP growth, a top-two import or export market for 56% of countries in the world (including for the U.S., the EU, India, Brazil, Japan, Russia, Nigeria and Canada), the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the largest consumer of electric vehicles, the largest contributor to reforestation in the world, the second largest military budget and second largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget after the U.S.
  • The advent of China as global superpower and shaper of international rules is distinctive for Canadian foreign policy because this kind of influence is exercised for the first time by an authoritarian entity that is home to socio-political principles very different from our own.
  • Under Xi Jinping, China has become more assertive internationally and has shifted gears on domestic reforms, continuing forward in some areas and reversing course in others.
  • Across the developed world, most notably in the U.S., we see a serious hardening of views on China based on an emerging consensus that the long-standing engagement policy, predicated on the gradual liberalization of the Chinese polity, economy and society, has failed. However, this engagement rationale exaggerates developed countries’ capacity to influence Chinese domestic politics; need not depend on China becoming a liberal democracy anytime soon; and underestimates the extent to which China has contributed to and been profoundly shaped by globalization.
  • Given the narrower room for manoeuvre, in particular resulting from the deepening China-U.S. rivalry, nuance, precision and clarity have become ever more important. Gone are the days when one could talk loosely of engaging with or disengaging from China. We must now explain when, in which areas, how and why. We must also carve space for Canadian policy independence.


  • Go beyond binary analyses of the global order. At the global level, different issue-areas require different kinds of partnerships. Canadian foreign policy has to be nimbler, accept that there is no permanent coalition of “like-mindeds” across all issue-areas, and work outside of comfortable arenas, at different levels of government and with civil society.
  • Build an “adaptive, modular relationship” with China; one that modifies character and tone across issue-areas. Refrain from the temptation of reaching for the on/off switch, of escalating and reacting all at once. Canada must be able to tone certain aspects down in times of tension without putting all aspects of the relationship on hold.
  • Accept that Canada can be aligned with most Chinese stakeholders in the fight against climate change, aligned with some Chinese stakeholders on the reform of the WTO and the defense of multilateralism, and not aligned with many Chinese stakeholders on the governance of the Internet or the implementation of surveillance mechanisms. There is often no consensus within China on many issues critical to Canadian interests, such as IP protection. Need for a granular understanding of where partners in China are located on issues of interest. Canada ought to leverage promising relationships and open the door for non-traditional partnerships.
  • Craft a more complex narrative on China that goes beyond popular short-cuts such as the “trade vs. human rights” binary. Craft distinct and predictable policy responses to different types of Chinese behaviours that are not aligned with our interests. There are situations in which Canada should “let go” as Chinese people are the ones with legitimate agency, some situations in which Canada should “cooperate” and/or offer expertise where there is receptivity, some situations in which Canada should “stand firm” where there is direct impact on Canadian interests, and other situations in which Canada should “engage and challenge” China at the international level, such as the observance of international agreements. The goal here must be to continue to engage China, not isolate it. Problems arise when there is a mismatch between types of Chinese behaviour and levels of Canadian response. Questions relating to China’s observance of international agreements cannot be dealt with within the confines of our bilateral commercial relationship.
  • Reinforce domestic institutions and reassess “red lines” for Canada, in light of the novel challenges presented by the distinctive advent of China as global rules shaper. This includes investing in the strengthening of Canadian institutions linked to the exercise of democracy as well as individual rights and freedoms and refreshing their foundations in the face of rising illiberal narratives. It also includes reassessing best practices in areas such as, but not limited to, R&D, academic freedom, freedom of the press, and data and internet governance.
  • Work to maintain channels of communication open at all times. The tone of Canada’s China policy, which can be modulated across issue-areas and across time, should be divorced from the structure of the China relationship (official dialogues and channels of communication), which should remain in place and continue to deepen, despite changes in government.
  • For any of this to be feasible, Asia and China literacy and consciousness need to be raised across the board.

Pascale Massot

Pascale Massot is an assistant professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests include the global governance of extractive commodity markets, the political economy of the Asia Pacific region and of China in particular.

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