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Why domestic politics will prevent a thaw in China-Canada tensions in 2024

Why domestic politics will prevent a thaw in China-Canada tensions in 2024

By Ye Xue, University of Alberta and Karel Brandenbarg, University of Alberta

China-Canada relations appear caught in a well-charted downward spiral in recent years amid tensions on various fronts that encompass human rights concerns, cybersecurity issues and, of course, disputes related to the arrests of Meng Wanzhou and the “two Michaels.”

Expelling each other’s diplomats in May 2023 further strained already deteriorating relations.

As both countries faced numerous challenges in domestic and international affairs, Beijing and Ottawa, coincidentally, sent signals of what’s known as “de-risking” their foreign policy later in 2023.

China was apparently intent to ease tensions with its key trading partners. This was evident in Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Beijing, and President Xi Jinping’s meeting with United States President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the APEC Summit in San Francisco.

Chinese, Canadian woes

Domestic socioeconomic issues have largely fuelled China’s recent diplomatic activism. A lack of consumer and capital market confidence in China’s economic outlook has slowed its economy, causing high unemployment as well as a series of social problems that have put pressure on the government.

For Canada, meantime, diplomatic achievements in 2023 were few and far between. Apart from increasingly tumultuous relations with China, Canada and India are also embroiled in a significant diplomatic crisis. It’s not ideal for Ottawa to find itself at odds with Asia’s two great powers.

That’s likely why Ottawa is also attempting to chart a new path for Canada’s international engagement. In October 2023, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly provided details about Canada’s goal to practise “pragmatic diplomacy, to engage countries of different perspectives in order to prevent an international conflict.”

But even though both countries are now embracing more pro-active foreign policy, it’s unlikely there will be a noticeable détente between China and Canada in 2024.

Canada isn’t Beijing’s priority

In a recent article in Ottawa Life magazine, Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu wrote:

“For the road ahead, it is hoped that Canada will work in the same direction with China, uphold the principle of mutual respect, seeking common ground while shelving differences, and win-win co-operation, to bring our bilateral relationship back on track at an early date.”

However, Beijing’s aspirations may prove challenging.

Canada’s insubstantial position on China’s strategic chessboard means Beijing isn’t likely to either prioritize the Canadian-Chinese relationship or have a dedicated strategy to achieve a bilateral détente.

China classifies the major targets of its diplomacy into four categories: great powers, neighbouring states, developing countries and multilateral platforms. However, as a traditional western middle power, Canada doesn’t fit into any of these categories.

China has developed partnerships with other nations that range from friendly and co-operative to comprehensive strategic ties at a higher level, depending on the level of importance Beijing attaches to that specific state.

China and Canada established a strategic partnership in 2005, a relationship that ranks lower than the “comprehensive strategic partnerships” China has with western countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, France and Germany.

Canada is also ranked only 18th on China’s list of top trade partners, which also stops Beijing from expending more diplomatic resources to solve its dispute with Ottawa.

That means that even though China may talk about repairing relations with Canada, it’s unlikely to have a dedicated plan to do so. Instead, China’s policies on Canada will likely depend on Canada’s attitude towards Chinese priorities. In particular, Canada’s approach to Indo-Pacific regional affairs in 2024 could significantly influence the Canada-China relationship.

On the horizon

A victory in Taiwan by its ruling party, DPP, in the country’s upcoming presidential election will undoubtedly heighten tensions with China, potentially leading to an increase in economic and military pressure against the Taiwanese.

The South China Sea remains a significant flashpoint in the region and will probably be the site of sustained tensions between China and other countries, including the U.S. and its allies.

Since Canada regards itself as a stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region, its support of the liberal rules-based regional order inevitably puts it at odds with China’s claims in the region, which could deepen Chinese distrust of Canada in 2024.

While Canada’s lack of engagement with China makes it an outlier among western nations, Canadian domestic politics provides little incentive for the government to improve its relations with China.

Canadians currently have a negative view of China, with a Pew Research poll conducted last summer indicating only 14 per cent have a favourable opinion of China. Much of this negativity is the result of several foreign interference scandals involving China.

The Liberal Party and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have had a difficult time on the China file. Accusations of ignored intelligence reports and concerns over financial connections to China have led the government to continually backtrack on engagement with the Chinese. Public hearings into election interference are beginning soon.

In 2024, the Liberals face an unstable supply-and-confidence agreement with the NDP and the opposition Conservatives are polling well ahead of them. The Conservatives even criticized the Liberals for sending the federal environment minister to China last year.

Trade numbers remain strong

Poor relations have yet to significantly impact recent trade between Canada and China. There were record bilateral trade numbers in 2022, and while data for 2023 indicates a reduction in imports, exports are up.

As long as exports to China continue unimpeded, the Liberals have minimal incentive to re-engage with the Chinese. A lack of engagement won’t improve the relationship, but it also avoids the chance of another diplomatic spat that could put key export industries at risk.

While China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner, it only represents 3.9 per cent of exports and 11.9 per cent of imports, according to the most recent data. That means outside of key export industries, concerns about China likely outweigh the trade benefits in the eyes of many Canadians.

Even Canadians who buy Chinese imports, like cellphones and computers, are probably willing to get them from somewhere else. China is therefore low on the federal government’s priority list.

A shift in Canadian public opinion about China is likely a prerequisite for re-engagement by both current and future governments. This shift in opinion can’t happen overnight and must be genuine; otherwise the government will look soft on China to wary Canadian citizens.

With the foreign interference inquiry soon to begin featuring public testimony in the weeks ahead, China may feature prominently in the Canadian news cycle in 2024 — meaning a genuine thaw in Canada-China relations isn’t yet in the cards.The Conversation

Ye Xue, Research Fellow, International Relations, China Institute, University of Alberta and Karel Brandenbarg, Policy Researcher, Political Science, China Institute, University of Alberta

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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