It’s been 45 years since Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau took the groundbreaking step of initiating diplomatic relations with China, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. On November 12, UBC and the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada are hosting a day of discussions among panellists from Canada and China in recognition of the significant bilateral relations that have been forged over the past four and a half decades.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enters the office once held by his father, UBC Institute of Asian Research director Yves Tiberghien, one of the event’s key organizers, reflects on the past, present and future of Canada-China relations.
What was the political climate like in China and Canada when Pierre Elliot Trudeau opened up relations in 1968?
Negotiations for opening up China-Canada diplomatic relations started in 1968 and led to the official establishment of relations on October 13, 1970. At the time, it was a truly daring move. Although France had already opened up relations in 1964 under de Gaulle’s vision that China would rise in the future and had to be brought into the global system, 1968 was an even more difficult period. Indeed, it was right at the height of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard street battles.
Prime Minister Trudeau proceeded from a large vision that, over time, it was essential to bring China into the Western system and to make a bet on China; to exclude China would lead to its alienation and continued radicalization. In this sense, Trudeau showed himself to be courageous and visionary. Trudeau’s move preceded the U.S. move under Kissinger (who had his first trip to China in 1971) and Nixon. It preceded actions by Japan and other major Western countries. And it was a difficult move, with fierce political opposition from various groups, as documented in Paul Evans’ book Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper.
Under the Harper government, China-Canada relations got a bit frosty for a while. What is the state of the relations today?
When it comes to China, most Western democracies have a perpetual debate. Canada is no exception. Should we seek to engage—because engagement is the only way to work together on global challenges (such as climate change, security in North Korea, or stabilizing the global economy)—and hope that this transformation will lead to internal change in China? Or should we reduce our engagement and express our strong oppositions to human-rights violations and the lack of democracy?
When coming to power, Prime Minister Harper chose the latter course, eventually leading to a refusal to participate in the 2008 Olympic Games. Later, Harper kept a tight political line but engaged in economic relations focused on trade and investment. That in turn opened the door to greater flows of trade, tourism and people, but it kept the relations relatively cool and non-strategic. There is great potential for new developments in this relationship.
How do you see the future of China-Canada relations unfolding in the next couple of years with another Trudeau now in office?
It will take a few months to truly emerge, depending on the team formed around Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion and the Prime Minister’s office. China will not fall under immediate priorities. However, Prime Minister Trudeau will be meeting President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping several times in the coming weeks, including at the G20 and APEC this week alone. China will be a key player at the climate negotiations in Paris in two weeks, where Canada will be heavily involved.
We can expect that Prime Minister Trudeau will return to the line of engagement pursued by the Liberal party consistently since his father opened up relations, but it will probably be pursued with open eyes and an awareness of the risks involved. China is taking the G20 presidency in 2016 and is gearing up to have a very successful G20. Given that Canada’s Liberals (and Paul Martin in particular) are widely credited with the initiation of the G20, Canada can play a strategic and mediating role. Even the US White House acknowledges that 2016 may be a crucial year to engage China in the crucial job of global institution building. Nudging progress in global economic and environmental governance and working between G7 allies and China is Canada’s forte. Interesting opportunities lie ahead.
Canada-China Engagement: The 45th Anniversary takes place November 12 at UBC’s Liu Institute. The event will also feature the release of a policy paper outlining Canada’s future with China, co-authored by UBC professor and former Asia Pacific Foundation CEO Paul Evans and Wendy Dobson, a director of the Institute of International Business at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.