Prime Minister Justin Trudeau actually had quite a successful visit to China last week. In many ways the level of welcome our Canadian delegation received was unprecedented; downright gaudy by Chinese standards, in fact. It is no secret China did not have the best relationship with the former Harper government. That relationship was business-like and productive, but there was no warmth or genuine regard on either side.
Trudeau, in contrast, was received with all the pomp of an official state visit, was given unfettered access to China’s business and political elites and was even treated to an intimate family dinner in the Forbidden City, the home of China’s ancient emperors, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Trudeau did raise the issue of human rights quite publicly on his visit, but hedged it in terms of China’s image in the world rather than as an institutional criticism. This was a marked improvement on the way Canadian leaders have done this in the past; only criticizing in private discussions and reserving all other comments in front of the media. Trudeau made no bones about it when he told Chinese leaders at one gathering:
“Around the world there is anxiety around trade, there is anxiety around China,” he said bluntly. And Canada was “in a position to help China position itself in a very positive way on the world stage.”
Trudeau went on to say, again quite precociously for a visiting leader from another country, “China should be — and is — confident and successful enough to know that it should be able to ask for advice and take suggestions about how to be better for its citizens, better to build a greater future.”
Coming into this state visit China held the dagger of cutting off Canada’s canola imports to Trudeau’s throat. Trudeau was able to walk around that issue quite deftly, and even got China to agree to extend its stated deadline of Sept. 1 so further talks can continue on that critical file.
Likely the Chinese were willing to do it anyway, but used the issue as leverage to move Canada forward on two other key issues they were stonewalled on under the Harper Conservatives: Getting Canada to sign up for its passion project, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, (which occurred), and moving forward negotiations on a proposed future free trade agreement between the two nations, (no agreement there, but positive sentiments expressed on both sides).
China is a country we have to be concerned about both from a human rights perspective and for its budding imperialist tendencies in the Asia-Pacific region. China, like Russia, presents a conundrum for western democracies. They are too big to be ignored, but their governance systems and social values sometimes deeply conflict with our own.
The Harper government’s policy was no engagement with Russia and only limited engagement on crucial economic matters with China; while at the same time publicly pillorying them for their expansionist tendencies.
All this week in China officials there held up the image of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau before the eyes of his son to remind him, and Canadians, how another progressive leader from our country’s past was able to hold out an olive branch to China, and help it establish diplomatic ties with the West after decades of enforced isolation. The parallel was not lost on the Canadian delegation.
Will China and Canada continue to deepen ties under today’s Trudeau government? If this past week is any indication, the Chinese are certainly hoping so.