The question many Canadians ask whenever one of our leaders visits China is: Should we raise human rights abuses in public, in private or at all? The Liberals—especially under Jean Chrétien—used to downplay any public criticism at all of China, but now they criticize the prime minister for not doing enough of it.
The Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper have apparently pivoted from initially not engaging much with China because of concerns over that nation’s appalling human rights record, and because of Conservative support for Taiwan and Tibet. Readers may remember the rebukes the prime minister received from Chinese officials and the state-controlled media when he visited China in 2009.
Now the Tories seem more inclined to emphasize trade and other bilateral economic considerations and avoid or minimize the other issues—at least in public utterances.
Either way, of course, the Conservatives will attract criticism from the opposition and their friends in the media. (See The Iceman’s comments regarding Evan Solomon’s Power & Politics show on the CBC.) But which strategy best suits Canada’s national interests?
Can a nation like Canada—which needs world markets for its abundant national resources, high-tech-manufactured goods and technical knowhow—afford to pick and choose its trading partners? Or is it best to ignore or supress moral qualms and engage with all nations? I believe we should adopt trading policies based largely on the latter.
Such a policy should not preclude discussions of human rights and other foreign policy issues, however. It only means such discussions should be made on a person-to-person basis and not in public statements designed to embarrass either party.
This seems to be the course Australia has charted for itself vis-à-vis its relationship with China. Australia-China trade has quadrupled over the past five years—if imports are factored in, trade between the countries is $80-billion a year. More importantly, Australia enjoys a three-to-one trade imbalance with China.
Belatedly though it may be, I believe the Tories are correct to follow their new course and embrace trade with China with few moral preconditions.