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Is Trump Driving Canada into China’s Clutches?

Critics fear Beijing will use trade rift with U.S. to seek concessions from Trudeau government.

Jeremy Nuttall 19 Jan

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

Donald Trump’s trade policies could push the Trudeau government, already infatuated with China, into the arms of Beijing despite the risks to Canadian jobs and concerns about human rights, warn experts.

Trump, who will be sworn in as the U.S. president Friday, has suggested he will reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement, which could mean new barriers to Canadian exports.

And that could boost the Liberal government’s existing enthusiasm for expanded trade with China.

The Chinese government would be quick to seize the opportunity to advance its interests, said Charles Burton, a China expert with Brock University.

Canada is already planning to begin exploratory free trade talks with China in the coming weeks, despite polls showing Canadians are concerned about the initiative.

And last week’s cabinet shuffle saw former immigration minister John McCallum named Canada’s ambassador to China. Burton predicted that McCallum was likely to focus more on Chinese trade and business initiatives than issues of human rights, Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and its desire to use Chinese workers on projects in Canada.

Burton said the Chinese government could see any threat to Canada’s economy from Trump’s protectionist policies as a chance to advance its interests.

Environmental issues, using workers imported from China for projects and easier acquisitions of Canadian companies could all be on the table, he warned.

“China would not want us to speak to them about the legitimacy of their claims in the South China Sea,” he said about a possible free trade deal. “And they wouldn’t want us to be raising any concerns about human rights in China.”

There’s a wide range of issues China would consider “unfriendly” for Canada to raise, he said.

He pointed to Switzerland’s arrests of pro-Tibet protestors during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week as an example of the pressure Canada would expect. Switzerland has a free trade agreement with China.

In the past China has told Canada it wants an oil pipeline to Canada’s west coast and the changes to allow Chinese companies to use their own workers on projects in this country.

Trudeau recently announced a review of a Harper government decision to cancel the sale of a Montreal high-tech firm to a Chinese company over national security concerns.

The Trump administration has taken a tougher stance on China, threatening to label the country a currency manipulator. Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, suggested using force to stop China’s ambitious attempts to extend its claims in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is ready to re-introduce legislation aimed at protecting freedom in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China with more civil rights than the Chinese mainland.

Trump has also said the U.S. “One China policy,” which acknowledges China’s claim to Taiwan, could be reviewed. Taiwan has considered itself an independent nation since the end of China’s civil war in 1950.

Trump angered Beijing by taking a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in December. This week, China urged the U.S. to ban Taiwanese officials from Friday’s inauguration ceremony.

Some in Canada’s Taiwanese community fear China could use a strained relationship with the U.S. and the Liberal government’s desire for better trade relations to pressure Canada to abandon Taiwan.

Nigeria recently moved the Taiwan trade mission out of the capital, Abuja, and into the business hub of Lagos after China made a $40-billion infrastructure pledge to the country.

The Nigerian government announced the move during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the same official who lashed out at Canadian reporters during an Ottawa visit. Wang became angry when reporters asked former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion about human rights in China.

Daniel Pan of the Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto, which describes itself as a “general purpose” organization going back to 1963, said the prospect of China trying to use its economic investments in Canada to force Ottawa to distance itself from Taiwan is worrisome.

Canada does not officially recognize Taiwan as a country, but the island nation has representatives here and there are regular trade missions between the two countries.

Pan said Nigeria is not the only place Beijing has exerted pressure over the Taiwan issue. China recently seized military vehicles belonging to Singapore from a ship stopping in Hong Kong after the city-state conducted military exercises with Taiwan.

Pan expects China to eventually try such tactics on larger countries like Canada and the U.K. and said he hopes Canada asserts its relations with any country it chooses.

Trump’s rhetoric on China has made the Taiwan situation stressful and “added fuel to the fire,” he said.

Kai Ostwald from the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research said it’s possible China will apply pressure on some issues if Canada’s relations with the Trump administration worsen, but he doesn’t think Beijing will be too bold in its demands.

Ostwald said China has grown more sophisticated in international relations. Beijing would not likely expect the same kinds of concessions it demands from Asian neighbours, he said. “I think China has been relatively good about recognizing about where there are potential PR issues,” he added.

He said the Taiwan-Washington-China relationship is too fluid to allow firm predications after the “drastic shock” of Trump’s comments on the One China policy.

Meanwhile, Pan worries about how much Trudeau is willing to offer up to influence China and has some advice for Canadian officials.

“If China tells Canada to not be friends with Taiwan, be friends with Taiwan more,” Pan said. “Always take the opposite approach. The person who taught me this was the chief of staff for the old Trudeau.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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