How Canada-China relations could be complicated by the U.S. election
While Canada and the United States’ foreign policy approaches have differed lately, when it comes to China our dealings with the Asian superpower have become intertwined on a few major files, with significant political repercussions.
During their time in office, both U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden have tried to charm China on various occasions, though are now focusing on a tough-on-China approach.
Trump’s tried to portray Biden as soft on China, while Biden’s argued he’d be tougher than Trump has been.
China is set to be a big topic of conversation in the election, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Americans’ increasingly negative view of China.
But there are Canadian implications as well in how the U.S. approaches China going forward, from the U.S. extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and retaliatory detention of Canadians’ Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, to Canada’s decision whether or not to join the other Five Eyes nations in banning Huawei from its 5G network.
So, what can Canadians expect should Trump be reelected, or if American voters opt to elect Biden? CTV News.ca dug into what both candidates’ China policies and spoke with diplomatic and foreign policy experts about how Canada-China relations could be shifting in the months ahead.
WHERE TRUMP STANDS
Trump’s first term has included a series of decisions and declarations that have impacted Canada-China relations when it comes to its trading and cybersecurity relationships, though the main decision that continues to bind Canada to the United States was the 2018 U.S. extradition request that Canada executed to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in relation to fraud charges from the Americans.
Within days, in what’s largely been viewed as retaliation, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities in China, and they remain imprisoned to this day, facing espionage charges.
While U.S. officials have decried China’s tactics, John Bolton, the former national security adviser to Trump, has implored Canada to “bear with” the U.S. as the case unfolds, rather than give in to the chorus of prominent voices suggesting a form of prisoner swap that would see Meng released in exchange for the two Michaels.
Trump has also been bullish in regards to banning Huawei from that country’s 5G program and suggesting other nations follow suit, citing the national security risks. Canada has yet to decide, but has asserted it won’t be bullied into the decision, from Trump or China, despite the potential further erosion of relations that move could cause.
Though Trump also signed a trade deal with China, it has been described by some as more of a truce over tariffs than a free trade agreement.
If Trump is reelected, Canada is “going to be left in the same escalating kind of rhetoric,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a science, society and policy senior fellow at the University of Ottawa.
Former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques said that if Trump is reelected, there will be “significant” consequences for Canadian foreign policy, and Canada will lose room to maneuver on the world stage if it continues its current approach of not wanting to criticize or offend either Chinese President Xi Jinping or Trump.
The experts both agreed that if the Huawei decision is not taken before the November election, a Trump win would seal the deal on Canada not allowing the company into the 5G network.
WHERE BIDEN STANDS
While his 2020 platform has yet to say much about what a Biden presidency would mean for China, the former VP has stated that: “The world is facing inescapable challenges,” and names “a rising China” as one of them.
Biden’s view is that the next president “must repair our relationships with our allies and stand up to strongmen and thugs on the global stage to rally the world to meet these challenges,” but doesn’t state which category he’d put China in. But during the democratic primary debates he often emphasized China’s authoritarianism.
He’s also called into question Trump’s mixed messaging on China’s handling of COVID-19, from praising their early response to the coronavirus, to blaming them for the crisis. In an online attack ad called “Unprepared,” Biden spells out how he would have approached the global pandemic differently.
Trump’s levelled similar attacks on Biden, suggesting he’s standing up for, rather than up to, China.
“If Biden is elected there will be changes, because while there is now consensus in Washington, on both sides of the aisle among Democrats and Republicans that… it's time to be tougher,” said Saint-Jacques. “And I'm convinced that the Democrats would want to reinstitute some of the dialogues that they have had.”
Saint-Jacques said Biden’s past travel to China in his role as vice president would be an asset, and he’d likely look to resume that dialogue and lower the temperature of the rhetoric between China and the United States.
“Overall it would be less confrontational,” he said, adding that with Biden there could be an opportunity for a new approach to the two Michaels. Saint-Jacques suggested that he may be more open to negotiating an agreement for a settlement instead of pursuing the charges against Meng, which could then lead to her being returned to China and ideally Kovrig and Spavor returned to Canada.
“I think Biden will bring back that multilateralism, he'll bring back the bigger focus on things like rights, which again, Canada can be very supportive of,” McCuaig-Johnston said, adding that the Democrat’s approach to China is more nuanced and similar to the one Canada has taken over the years.
THE EXPERT TAKEAWAY
Overall, the foreign policy and diplomatic experts CTVNews.ca spoke with said that there will still be a chill on China-U.S. relations under either candidate that Canada would likely feel a breeze from, and so regardless of which man is elected to lead the U.S., it’s time for Canada to reassess its foreign policy and strategy when it comes to China.
Citing the shifting Canadian views on China—from a global force to a bully—Saint-Jacques noted that going forward, Canada is going to have to keep dealing with China on a range of issues, from the COVID-19 pandemic, to climate change and Canada should rethink how we engage.
“I think for all those reasons, we have to see China as it is, and therefore, we have to change our strategy,” he said.
That said, doing so would likely be easier with Biden in the White House, the experts said.
“We need a more measured approach, but one that recognizes that China has changed. We need to adjust our China policy, and it would be better to do that with the U.S. as a partner, as opposed to the U.S. being seen as an unreliable partner, because it can go off on tangents in any direction at all on a moment's notice,” said McCuaig-Johnston.