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Opinion: Playing the long game

Canada should consider how to re-engage China for when time is right

Glacier FarmMedia – Despite a massive roadblock between China and Canada, conversations on how to improve the trading relationship between the two countries are worth having.

The Canada West Foundation’s (CWF) recent report entitled Re-engagement Strategies for China on Agricultural Issues, written by Carlo Dade, the CWF’s director of its Trade & Investment Centre and trade policy economist Sharon Zhengyang Sun, makes a number of worthy suggestions.

But the future of the trading relationship between the two still hinges on the future of Canadians being held as prisoners in China.

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China arrested and held Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in what is believed to be an act of retaliation against Canada for arresting an executive of a Chinese company on behalf of the United States.

That context should make it difficult for Canada to thaw its relationship with China, because it would be immoral to engage on the subject while two Canadians are being held unjustly.

But as Dade says, “Canada should be prepared anyways.

“Just to have a fair chance we have to prepare for every eventuality,” he said during a Nov. 3 briefing on the report. “Not engaging won’t get the hostages back. Not doing so won’t expedite their return.”

While the moral high ground would seek to end trade relations with a country imprisoning Canadian citizens for bogus reasons, it isn’t realistic. Canadian exporters need Chinese buyers.

Dade and Sun argue China is a country that claims to be “the epitome of long-term thinking” and Canada would do well to start pondering more the long-term status of its relationship with China.

They note China’s significance to Canadian agriculture, particularly in the four western provinces, and suggest the two countries need one another more than many may think.

China, for example, is Canada’s second-largest agricultural export customer.

Meanwhile China, Dade says, is “deeply concerned about food security” and that means there is an argument to be made for how it deals with Canada, a reliable trading partner.

Of course, you can’t talk about relations between China and Canada without considering the United States.

The Phase 1 trade deal between China and the United States, according to Dade, makes the former more food dependent on the latter – putting China in a position it likely doesn’t want to be in.

As he put it: “For the Chinese who are engaged in an existential threat with the Americans, do you want to become dependent upon the United States for food supplies?”

This opens a door for Canada to suggest amicable relations between it and China are in the interest of both countries: Canada offers China insurance on its food security and producers lock in a massive export market.

“It’s a basis upon which to approach China to reconsider some of its current practices, not because we want them too — here is the key part of the report — but because in our analysis it’s in their self-interest,” Dade said. “If our self-interest and their self-interest aligns, then we may have the basis for something more sustainable.”

The authors suggest ways Canada can start improving the relationship now, too, such as hiring more trade officials and food inspectors in China who can speak Mandarin.

Dade hopes the report will spur debate and discussion among stakeholders about how to best improve relations with China.

It is still unclear what will become of Kovrig and Spavor, but Canada would be well served to prepare itself to re-engage China – when the time is right to do so.

About the author

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D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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