China historically always takes the long view and always plays the long game. Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, was reminded of this at his first meeting to establish U.S. diplomatic relations with China. As he and Premier Zhou Enlai eased into after-dinner chat during Kissinger’s momentous visit to Beijing in 1971, he asked China’s leader if he thought the French Revolution of 1789 was a success. Pausing momentarily to reflect, Zhou replied, “too early to tell.”
However, it would be folly to misinterpret that reply and suggest that we can take our sweet time to muse on increased trade with China. It’s no secret that over the last two decades China has been anything but slow when it comes to proactive engagement with willing partners. I see evidence of that everywhere I travel. Chinese-built, high-tech and beautiful bridges, railways, freeways, tunnels and ports now dot the globe. Many nations are beneficiaries of Chinese construction.
Some Canadians still coddle the antiquated notion that we are far more advanced than China on many levels. In fact, China is now comfortably ahead of us in many fields. New, high-tech, well-functioning mega cities flourish there. Some have populations nearly as large as our entire country. And we can’t be smug when hearing about so-called “ghost cities.” China and its world-leading growth forges ahead, complete with mistakes, but circumspect enough to learn from its errors.
Entrepreneurial education is a key driver of growth. Recently, in a modern elementary school in China, I observed Grade 5 students learning to code and program the 3D printers that were perched on the counters in their classrooms.
China’s growth is slowing? Yes, it’s grinding all the way down to just under seven per cent! The International Monetary Fund says that means that China is moving from a “high-quantity to high-quality” economy. In about 10 years China will be the largest exporter of all capital and goods and services on the planet, surpassing the U.S. and Japan. Last year, China was responsible for more than a third of all global growth.
China also continues to move more people out of poverty into middle-class status (by the hundreds of millions) than any nation in world history. They’re the world’s largest supplier of tourists and international students. In the next decade China will overtake the U.S. in having the largest share of the world economic pie.
China’s One Belt One Road (Silk Road) project links nations across half the globe by road, rail, sea and airports. It’s without hyperbole, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bonanza unseen in human history, and fully underway. We could be part of that build-out.
Why should we be more engaged? I’m not alone in my observations. I have drawn some of my commentary from economist Kevin Lynch, the former clerk of the privy council, and former journalist Edward Greenspon and his Public Policy Forum’s compelling response to that question with their recent publication, Diversification Not Dependence. That document meshes with the incisive work regularly done by the Asia Pacific Foundation to show reasons and reservations that Canadians give on this matter.
We rightly benefit from our massive trade with the U.S. But is it wise for us to rely so heavily on our closest neighbour? The U.S. is becoming more nationally protective. It increasingly wields — at times without merit — the policy bludgeon of “security reasons” to threaten our potential growth for two-way trade with China.
As Asia Pacific Foundation polling reveals, many Canadians see the upside to increased trade with China but struggle with the human-rights question. This is a compelling and critical issue. As a fierce advocate for religious freedom and fighting for an end to the persecution of people of any faith, I share that concern.
But should reduction of trade with China be our policy weapon in that battle? If the answer is Yes, then surely we must be consistent and completely shut down engagement with countries like Saudi Arabia and dozens of other nations where even whispering about one’s Christian (or other) faith can bring a lifetime of imprisonment, torture or even death.
I think about that policy inconsistency every time I attend vibrant, full-to-capacity public worship services that take place in every one of the many Chinese cities I have visited.
Yes, we must unfailingly raise the issues in China of pastors or monks being arrested or about the Muslim minority under threat in the north. But if our answer is to stop Canadians from trading with China then we must also slam the door on at least 40 other nations.
Trade with China, alone, shouldn’t be our sole Asian focus. Former U.S. president Barack Obama rightly noted the necessity of a “pivot” to all of Asia. China’s population and economy is easily outnumbered by the sum total of the other Asian countries, many of which, such as Indian, are robust democracies. Therein lies huge potential.
However, our list of trade offerings to China is too huge to ignore. On energy alone, we could be helping reduce global emissions by selling China our gas and oil products and decreasing their growing reliance on coal. In the process, we would stimulate long-term prosperity for many of our First Nations who embrace this approach. Our green-tech sector can also help meet China’s policy imperative to “get greener now.” Food and health products also loom large.
It’s this sectoral approach to areas of trade that offers significant, sustainable growth for Canada’s economy. Will our policy-makers deprive our citizens of this significant opportunity? It’s too early to tell. But if we don’t move decisively, it could soon be too late.