Editor’s Take: International relationship management

As an exporting nation Canada will always be dependent on maintaining decent relationships with other countries around the globe — and that’s frequently easier said than done.

Think of our closest neighbour the U.S. A close relationship with it is inescapable, as it’s both right next door and an economic and military superpower.

Ordinarily that relationship is smoothed by our many similarities, but there are also stark differences. Often that relationship can change rapidly depending on who’s in power.

For every Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan belting out, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at the Shamrock Summit, there’s an offsetting LBJ shaking Lester B. Pearson by the lapels and snarling, “Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug,” following criticism of U.S. bombings in Vietnam.

We’re in the midst of one of these seismic shifts right now.

A recent Nanos Research poll captured our changing national mood. Just two years ago only 44 per cent of Canadians held any kind of favourable view of the U.S., even of the most lukewarm kind. But today that’s rebounded to 66 per cent in the early days of the Biden administration.

But for a sector like agriculture the waxing and waning of public opinion polls are but a sideshow. The truly important numbers are the trade ones, and here we’ve seen ongoing growth despite any bouts of indifference to our neighbours.

Canada and the U.S. have the largest agricultural bilateral trade relationship in the world, coming in at US$50.3 billion in 2019.

It’s a relationship that creates jobs, economic opportunities and prosperity on both sides of the border, and one that, for the most part, both countries foster.

But it’s also a relationship that comes with its own ups and downs, and could be headed for some challenging days.

At best a Biden administration will likely be neutral. At worst it could be protectionist and even activist. Already Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — reprising his role from the Obama administration — has said he’s open to the concept of country-of-origin labelling for meat products, provided they could be made trade compliant.

If that comes to pass, there will no doubt be a flurry of official delegations, lobbying and other politicking to attempt to find a resolution that’s amenable to both countries. It’s a familiar thing, and Canada has built the capacity to engage like this with the U.S., to its benefit.

Which brings us to another key international relationship, with another at-times bellicose economic superpower.

China and Canada have a long, and frequently supportive, relationship.

Dr. Norman Bethune led medical efforts during the Chinese Civil War. Canada made large-scale wheat sales to Communist China at the height of the Cold War. Canada was one of the earliest to recognize China, in 1970, nearly a decade before the U.S.

One might think that could be a sound foundation to build a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship on. But it would seem many Canadians are beginning to rethink Canada’s relationship with China.

The same Nanos poll found that just 15 per cent of its sample held favourable views of some degree towards China, while 69 per cent held negative views. The remaining were either neutral or unsure. Two years earlier 23 per cent held favourable views, 56 per cent held negative views and 23 per cent were either neutral or unsure.

This erosion has come as China has thrown its weight around on the world stage, including some well-aimed shots at nations like Canada and Australia.

Here in Canada that’s largely come in the form of retaliation for the arrest of telecom executive Meng Wanzhou under treaty obligation with the U.S.

We’ve seen a de facto ban on (direct) canola exports to China, what are largely seen as retaliatory arrests and detentions of the “two Michaels” and much posturing and hectoring on the part of the Chinese ambassador to Canada.

China is important to Canada economically, and especially to Canadian agriculture. It represents 15 per cent of the global economy, and absorbs billions of dollars in Canadian agriculture products every year.

Canada needs to spend the same time and energy managing this relationship, and provide the same resources to perform this task.

The Canola Council of Canada recently released its revised market development plan to avoid or quickly address future disruptions.

It’s asking the federal government to set up an Asian diversification office,led by experienced market access officers, and consisting of technical and regulatory policy experts.

It seems the sort of prudent investment Canada should make in its future.

About the author


Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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