Canada’s delicate relationship with China, usually already complicated, continues to deteriorate. Allegations of election interference and intimidation make headlines and are denounced by politicians and Canadians alike.
Reproaches that go badly with Beijing. The tension between the two countries is at its peak. A crisis which was inevitable, necessary, and which should serve once and for all to reinvent this relationship, sum up former ambassadors and representatives who have been stationed in the Middle Kingdom.
“China has always done espionage, theft of industrial secrets, shenanigans,” recalls bluntly David Mulroney, former number one at the Canadian Embassy in China from 2009 to 2012. The difference, he says, is that Beijing is now carrying out these operations more aggressively.
The Chinese communist regime has thus attempted to influence the last two federal elections, to intimidate or disadvantage federal members of parliament, and to operate police stations to intervene against Chinese nationals on Canadian soil. In the wake of these revelations, a diplomat from the Chinese consulate in Toronto was expelled from the country last month.
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa denies this “political farce” on every occasion and threatens Canada with reprisals if it “continues on this dangerous wrong path”. Chinese President Xi Jinping scolded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 summit last fall.
All this after China arbitrarily imprisoned Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for three years.
“I always thought it would take a crisis to shake Canada up and force it to have a more realistic understanding of China,” said David Mulroney, in an interview with THE Duty. That of the last few months could be the turning point, likely to finally convince Ottawa to adopt “a sensible approach to China and open our eyes”.
“We have to reinvent the relationship,” insists the former diplomat, who notably made a career in Asia. “She will never be better, because we are not friends and we have very few common interests. Nevertheless, we can benefit from it, for the Canadians and the Chinese. But we must develop it without any illusions, without flattery. »
Canada must continue to trade with China (while avoiding becoming dependent on it); dialogue with Beijing to advance issues of shared interest (for the fight against climate change or against the fentanyl crisis, exported from Chinese territory); and oppose when necessary (in matters of human rights, for example). The Indo-Pacific strategy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly, which takes up these objectives, is therefore welcomed by the former diplomats consulted by The duty.
The change in tone, however, remains “on the surface”, according to Mr. Mulroney. Ottawa must now demonstrate greater coherence, by applying this strategy in a coordinated way among all its departments. So that some no longer compromise national security by ordering equipment from China, he cites as an example.
“It’s sophisticated relationship management,” he acknowledges, speaking of China as a “formidable adversary.” “Keep them away with one hand, while with the other, we work with them constructively. »
His successor in Beijing, Guy Saint-Jacques, makes the same reading. “The crisis of the two Michaels has made everyone aware of the rogue side of China. The interference crisis has made it possible to sensitize the political class. And on this basis, Canada should see how to re-establish a relationship, which will always be a little lukewarm, but which will also be mature and trusting”, considers in turn the former ambassador (2012-2016).
A necessary partner, but to be circumscribed
Jean-François Lépine, who was Quebec’s representative in Beijing (2015-2021), also believes that relations between Canada and China must finally be transformed.
“These aggressive and rogue behaviors by China have created a trauma, which I hope Canada will learn from,” he told the Duty. Not by closing in, facing Beijing. “On the contrary, we need to understand this country more and open up relations, without being naive. »
To do this, Canada should improve its expertise in the Middle Kingdom, particularly among its diplomats (which is provided for in Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific strategy), but also by opening research chairs on China or by sending professors and university students there.
The relationship must also be “reciprocal”, insists Mr. Lépine, who is working on a book that will paint a portrait of the last 40 years of these relations between Ottawa and Beijing. What China imposes on Canada — such as banning foreign development in its strategic sectors — Canada must also do — as it did recently in the area of critical minerals.
It is also necessary to diversify the trade, without proceeding to the ” decoupling suggested by the United States. China still represents the second largest export market for Canada and Quebec. Despite the tensions of recent years, exports to China have continued to increase (2.8% per year since 2017) and Chinese imports reached a record level last year (more than 100 billion dollars, a 16% increase in one year).
Beijing relies on Canadian products as well as on foreign consumer markets, which it could not do without even if it wanted to shun certain Western countries.
“China is everywhere trying to patch up its relations, especially with Europe, which is its most important foreign market,” says Mr. Lépine.
However, this commercial relationship must be done with eyes wide open. Canada and its allies made the mistake of becoming voluntarily dependent in this regard on an unpredictable and revanchist China, in the opinion of the former Quebec delegate.
“Justin Trudeau has been largely responsible for the deterioration of all these years, because he has been naïve to China. He made gestures that were unrealistic, ”he criticizes the Canadian Prime Minister. “I think he doesn’t realize the magnitude of the change that needs to happen. This can be seen by the fact that he does not want to deepen the investigation to find out more about Chinese interference. »
Frozen by a conflict between leaders
Although China regularly attacks Canada publicly, behind the scenes, its diplomats are trying to renew ties with Ottawa, according to former Canadian envoys. But at the top, the exchanges remain more complicated.
Xi Jinping has radicalized in recent years. He further oppresses minorities in China, cracks down on countries that stand up to him (like Australia after Canberra raised his voice against Beijing), and sided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“As long as Xi Jinping is in office, the relationship will not be very good,” said another former Canadian ambassador, who preferred not to be named. However, the Chinese president, who changed the constitution of his country to stay in office, has no intention of leaving power soon.
American pressure to isolate China on the international scene and unfavorable Canadian opinion of the Beijing regime also mean that Canada has little incentive to orchestrate a major rapprochement.
Guy Saint-Jacques affirms on the other hand that “on the political level, the current does not pass” between the two leaders. The president would, according to him, have a “poor opinion of the prime minister”. “From a strict point of view of personalities, having a change of prime minister – whether liberal or otherwise – would help a lot to relaunch a dialogue. Failing this, the two countries should try to exchange through the voice of subordinates, suggests the former ambassador Saint-Jacques.
Beyond the diplomatic and democratic reproaches, as long as the two leaders remain in office, the relationship between Ottawa and Beijing therefore seems doomed, at worst, to the status quo, or at best, to a transactional and informed relationship, if the wish of the former emissaries of Canada is granted.