A Strategic Partnership with China: What's in a Name

Author: Paul Evans

When Chinese President Hu Jintao departed Vancouver for Beijing last Saturday, he must have had mixed feelings about the success of his North American visit. Stops in Washington and Seattle were cancelled while Americans wrestled with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The President met George Bush and ten other foreign leaders for bilateral meetings in New York around the margins of what was probably the most disappointing meeting of the UN since its founding. And the President was briefly trapped in an elevator in Mexico City during a visit that revealed more anxiety and fear about China’s rising economic power than a cooperative strategy for dealing with it.

But the five-day Canadian visit to Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver made the trip worthwhile. It will be remembered as the most successful and important visit by a Chinese leader to Canada. The bilateral relationship has quietly and confidently moved up a level. The declared “strategic partnership” that emerged from the visit signals a new level of mutual understanding that sets the stage for further activities that have the potential to transform Western Canada, cause some distress in the US, and alter the political economy of Canada.

Unlike the flurry of commercial deals that characterize Team Canada visits to China, President Hu’s focus was on the framework of the relationship. The specifics included seven new agreements to deepen cooperation in the areas of transportation, food safety, health sciences, and nuclear energy and a joint declaration on science and technology that includes a program of collaborative research on climate change and sustainable energy. The visit to Ballard Industries in Vancouver symbolized Chinese interest in renewable energy sources.

Prime Minister Martin and Governor General Clarkson spent an unprecedented amount of time discussing human rights issues with President Hu even as well- organized demonstrators, dominated by the Falun Gong, outside every venue exchanged jibes with equally-vocal rallies of China supporters.

The decision to elevate the relationship to a “strategic partnership” appears to have been taken only after President Hu’s arrival. Both sides were quick to point out that the word “strategic” is used in a commercial sense and does not include a military or security dimension. On the Chinese side, it replaced the ungainly “trans-century comprehensive partnership” that had been used by former President Jiang Zemin during his 1997 visit. It puts Canada in a category that includes the EU, ASEAN, Russia, India and Brazil. And it conveys Canada’s significance to the multiple layers of the Chinese government and to its firms.

For the Canadian side, the meaning and significance of “strategic partnership” are different. First, the process of high-level contacts that has been a hallmark of the policies of Canadian prime ministers since Pierre Trudeau will continue and be expanded. Prime Minister Martin has encouraged virtually every federal department and agency to focus on China and embrace a “whole of government” approach in doing so.

Second, the phrase has been accompanied by assurances that Chinese investment in Canada is welcome on a commercial basis including in energy and minerals. China Goes Global, a recent study by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, indicates that not many Chinese firms are interested in investing in Canada but the visit may stimulate some new approaches.

Third, it says something to the United States. The implicit commitment to market diversification is neither new nor likely to arouse anxiety. What may cause concern is the message that Chinese firms will be welcome in the Canadian energy sector. The commitment to a strategic partnership is a signal of the continued independence of the Canadian approach to China and of Canadian concerns about North American integration.

Less noticed in Eastern Canada than the strategic partnership was that both Mr. Martin and President Hu linked the strategic partnership to development of an Asia Pacific Gateway Strategy. The immediate focus of this strategy being developed by the province of British Columbia in cooperation with Alberta and the federal government, is revamping the physical infrastructure of ports, roads, rail lines and pipelines to accommodate a substantially expanded connection to goods and people from Asia.

When Mr. Martin proclaimed that the Gateway strategy was for British Columbia, the West and all of Canada, a regional initiative spurred by dreams of expanded relations with China took on the status of a national strategy for dealing with Asia that goes far beyond investment in physical infrastructure.

Western Canada wants to be more than a passive transporter of goods between Asia and North America. The Gateway concept is about adding value. And politically it is the anti-thesis to Fortress North America and continental protectionism.

Openness to China is just one move in a broader opening to Asia. The implications for transportation and energy policy are immediate. But in a range of other policy areas including border security, immigration and citizenship, health, education and above all industrial policy, the game is just beginning. The challenges of moving this from a provincial and federal strategy to a national one that involves Quebec and Ontario are substantial.

President Hu came to Canada as the leader of a rising China that is reshaping the global economy. The Canadian response signaled general approval of the rise and the recognition that its future prosperity depends upon connecting to it.

Paul Evans was recently seconded from the University of British Columbia to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the Board and Co-CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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