There’s been more than a little talk lately that the federal government needs to “get on a plane,” head to China and sort this canola situation out.
That is an understandable sentiment with obvious appeal to human nature, which favours obvious action on pressing issues, the act of being seen to “do something.” But the reality is these sorts of situations are never so simple.
A similar situation occurred a few years back when the first Canadian case of BSE was reported, on May 20, 2003, causing the U.S. to immediately close its border to Canadian beef shipments, quickly followed by many other jurisdictions around the globe.
At one point, Canadian beef was banned from close to 40 countries, effectively shutting down exports of Canadian beef.
By August of that year some headway had been made, with certain beef products being allowed into the U.S. and Mexico. But it would be July 14, 2005, before live cattle entered the U.S. again.
During that period, ranchers across the country took a terrible hit. There are various estimates for just how big that hit was. One report pegs it at $11 million a day, another totals it close to $7 billion. Regardless which estimates you accept, it was undeniably a costly episode.
At the time there was plenty of calls for action, and plenty of actual action as well. But it’s not entirely clear just how effective any of it was in the end.
At one point provincial agriculture ministers from across Canada converged on Washington to make the lobbying rounds, for example. While it might have made good press, the truth of the matter is that a few meetings with lobbyists and mid-level USDA functionaries likely served no real purpose.
Those sorts of situations are only resolved at the regulatory level, and when they are solved, they’re solved incrementally and with an abundance of caution. Nobody on the opposite end wants to be known as the regulator or policy-maker who rushed the review and put citizens at risk.
Some lessons can be learned from this example for the current situation regarding canola shipments to China, though of course it’s an imperfect comparison. The U.S., for example, had a clear-cut concern based in both fact and science. BSE was absolutely present in the Canadian cattle herd and its job was to determine how widespread that presence was and how large a risk it presented to human health.
China, on the other hand, appears to be complaining of a problem that suffers from lack of evidence. That’s led to an abundance of suspicion this fight is, as so many are, about other things. In this case, the issue that nobody’s talking about is the arrest of an official of the Chinese company Huawei at the behest of the U.S. government.
That line of speculation was lent an air of credibility last week by some public musings by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, who stated Canada should “take practical measures to correct the mistakes it made earlier” in dealing with the overall relationship, according to a CBC report.
That led to a short and sharp social media response from David Mulroney, the former Canadian ambassador to China, who tweeted, “China is not even trying to conceal the retaliatory aspect of this measure,” while sharing the CBC report.
It’s this clearly political dimension of this dispute that will require very careful finessing and cannot be rushed.
Also important to note is that the Chinese government has shown little interest in engaging in any dialogue or negotiation on this issue, raising this question: who should our own government officials be rushing to meet with? It would be awfully difficult to come to any solution without a willing party on the other end of the conflict. What is allowed over the Chinese border is, ultimately, their decision alone, as a sovereign nation.
We can dispute their logic and justification, just as we did with our American friends earlier this century. But they and they alone hold the key to allowing access again to those shipments.
Canada meantime finds itself in a tight spot, between the world’s lone remaining superpower and an emerging and increasingly bellicose second power. And it’s going to be important to remember that, regardless the size of the economic pain, there are important issues at stake here.
China has arrested two Canadians — businessman Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat and an adviser with the International Crisis Group (ICG) — in a move widely seen as retaliation for the Huawei arrest. In a slightly less sympathetic vein it also summarily re-sentenced convicted Canadian drug smuggler Robert Lloyd Schellenberg in a one-day show retrial.
In that light, calling for the federal government to snap its fingers and solve this situation — at all costs — is unreasonable and even irresponsible.