Charles Burton

Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario and is a former Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing

June 2 marked the end of the 90-day period that federal officials allocated for public input into Canada’s potential free-trade negotiations with China. But the so-called “consultation” bore little resemblance to the process that Ottawa uses when it is serious about getting feedback on policy.

People who are called to make presentations to parliamentary committees have their airfare, hotels and meals paid, and a transcript of the hearing is immediately made publicly available.

In this case, officials will simply issue a summary report that likely supports the government in moving from the current “exploratory talks” to binding negotiation of a Canada-China free-trade agreement.

At any rate, Ottawa’s approach to negotiating free trade with China is already known – it’s on the government’s Canada-China free-trade consultations website. For example, in the FAQs, the question that concerns most Canadians (“Will Canada address human rights concerns in China through an FTA?”) gets a boilerplate response: “The promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part … in our long-standing relationship with China.” Fair to say we can take that as a “no.” On the contrary, Chinese authorities make it crystal clear that unless Canada commits to ceasing to “interfere in our internal affairs” there will be no lucrative trade deal.

The hard truth is that Beijing doesn’t really need a free-trade agreement with Canada. China already has excellent access to Canadian markets because of our low tariffs, our fair and transparent business regulations and our impartial rule of law to adjudicate contract disputes. Canada, of course, has nowhere near a level playing field in China, where many sectors are closed to Canadian goods, services and investment. Whether a free-trade agreement with China will shrink our current 3:1 trade deficit is very much an open question.

The prospect of strengthening Canada’s comprehensive engagement with China, including economic and trade activity, is certainly alluring, especially given the erratic state of our relations with the Trump regime. But don’t expect free-trade talks to enrich our business with China if the process only forces Canada to bow to Beijing-imposed conditions on other important aspects of the economic relationship.

Ottawa’s commitment to promote Canadian values abroad, in particular to defend the rights of Chinese citizens in China, cannot be based on tacit compliance with Chinese political imperatives that are inconsistent with the universal norms of human rights. Canada must not be placed in a position whereby proactively speaking out for and defending human rights in China comes at an economic cost to Canada imposed by China, once our economies are integrated through a binding free-trade treaty. Other countries with high economic dependence on China now tread very softly on concerns about Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, cyberespionage, arbitrary arrests of lawyers and political dissidents and the growing practice of Chinese security forces and policy to operate ever more boldly in foreign jurisdictions, including Canada.

Any free-trade agreement must include consequences for any withdrawal of Chinese state investment, or for the imposition of measures that obstruct Canadian access to Chinese markets. China’s threat last summer to halt $2-billion in annual imports of Canadian canola seed is instructive in this regard, and trade negotiators will know that the agreement to keep accepting our canola seeds expires in 2020.

It is also critical that Ottawa demonstrate it will scrutinize all Chinese state investment in Canada, to ensure that our economic integration with China is strictly based on trade and investment reciprocity.

Finally, it is imperative that Canada maintain the right to walk away from any deal if it is not functioning in ways that are consistent with Canada’s overall interests in China or with sustaining Canadian values in our engagement with China.

There is so much at stake. Canada must be innovative and shrewd in discussing trade issues and challenges on Canada’s terms. Sadly, so far there appears to be little political will to achieve that.

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