Trudeau’s China Visit: Challenges ahead for Sino-Canadian Relations

Trudeau in Beijing, September 1, 2016. Image: Washington Post/Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press via AP

Professor Michael Szonyi, Director of Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, looks at the challenges facing Canada-China relations during Prime Minister Trudeau’s state visit.

As a Canadian citizen, I am paying special attention this week to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first official visit to China, ahead of the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

Many of his activities are standard fare for visiting state leaders: meetings with senior Chinese officials; a speech to the local Canadian chamber of commerce; a photo-op at the Great Wall. And many of the issues that will be discussed are standard topics for bilateral negotiations between China and other Western countries. Trudeau will want to make progress on trade and investment while also satisfying domestic expectations to promote human rights. He will try to avert a looming trade dispute — over what Canada considers non-tariff trade barriers to canola exports.

Photo-ops on the Great Wall. Image: Twitter @JustinTrudeau

While Trudeau will be able to leverage longstanding family connections to China — his father presided over the normalization of Chinese-Canadian relations in the 1970s — these are tough challenges. For a middle power, as Canada likes to think of itself, it is never easy to deal with a great power. In some ways then the challenges for Trudeau and his delegation are not very different from those faced by his Prime Ministerial predecessors.

But then there are the issues Trudeau-fils will have to deal with that Trudeau-père could never even have imagined. Today, Canada has several hundred thousand citizens of Hong Kong origin, and in response to some recent incidents, Trudeau will probably try to secure assurances that China will respect conventional practices around dual-citizens, especially consular access.

Some Chinese are unhappy about a new tax on foreign buyers of real estate in British Columbia, including in the hot Vancouver market (It will not come up during Trudeau’s visit, but it is safe to say that some of the officials with whom the Canadians are meeting — or their relatives — are probably directly affected by the move). These kinds of issues speak to the how much more complex the Chinese-Canadian relationship has become in recent years.

The discussion over possible Canadian membership in the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is another example. As CBC journalist Don Pittis writes, whereas Trudeau’s father had to deal with only one elephant — the United States — Justin Trudeau must deal with two. Another issue that will likely not come up during Trudeau’s visit arises from reports, most recently in the New York Times, of journalists in Canada coming under pressure to tone down their coverage of China. This issue more than any other shows that the idea that trade promotion and human rights concerns are and must be kept separate is, in our world of globalization and a rising China, no longer meaningful.

Sino-Canadian relations are likely to be less cuddly going forward. Image: MacLeans.