Charles Burton: What a Biden Presidency means for Canada-Chinese Relations

Q: How have the policies and positions of the Trump administration impacted Canada’s relationship with China?

A: Chinese foreign policy has been changing under Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Under Obama there had been a belief that China could be brought into compliance with the liberal democratic norms of the rules based international order. However, Xi Jinping, who has articulated the doctrine of the Community of the Common Destiny of Mankind, has suggested that the existing global institutions are based on values which are hostile to Chinese norms. believes the U.S is in terminal decline and China will regain what he regards as its traditional global position as the dominant civilization on the planet to which all other countries will be subordinated. Commensurate with this is the development of the Belt and Road Initiative—a highly ambitious global infrastructure project designed to reorient global infrastructure towards China at the center.

Trump’s trade policy was based on an acceptance of a reality that China was not abiding by the spirit and intent of the WTO, that there were too many non-tariff barriers to fair access to the Chinese market, too much conditionality of transfer of proprietary manufacturing processes and intellectual property as conditional on access to Chinese trade and investment. Additionally, many Chinese firms operating in the West have benefited from state-sponsored cyber espionage under a coordinated whole-of- government approach. Chinese security agencies support the economic interests of PRC state firms and reciprocally, those firms are required under the Chinese Intelligence Law of 2017 to cooperate with any requests that are made of them by Chinese security agencies.

Canada’s existing bargain with China states that Canada will not engage in any significant action against non-economic factors, and that the primary concern of Canada-China relations is the promotion of Canadian prosperity and the diversification of the Canadian economy away from the U.S. Other issues such as China’s expansionist policies in the South China Sea, support of rogue regimes like North Korea, Chinese domestic human rights abuses, and other gross violations of China’s commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be ignored in favour of the larger issue. This has unfortunately included Canada not enacting effective legislation regarding the transfer of dual use technologies to agents of a foreign state or engaging in meaningful programming to counter Chinese influence operations within Canada, which have been increasing.

I think U.S policy has had an impact on Canadian public opinion, which has now gone down to about 15% public support for enhanced engagement with China economically. This has put pressure on the government to make some indications of an upcoming China policy reset, which is promised before the end of this year. Public officials who are involved in the reformulation of this China reset policy have indicated that the expectations of diaspora and human rights groups should not be too high. The Conservative Party has made a significant reset of relations with China its top foreign policy priority. It’s possible this issue could become a factor in the next election, but my guess would be that if the current government wins a majority, it will continue with the current China policy. Canada would likely join any multilateral organization directed at enforcing Chinese compliance with international norms. Joining such an organization would temper our domestic approach to China.


Q: How successful have the Trump administration’s China policies been and what is Beijing’s perspective on a Biden presidency?

A: The trade war has not been notably successful in the sense that it hasn’t changed the balance of trade between China and the U.S in the favour of the U.S. It does put pressure on the Chinese government with respect to U.S concerns. China, without question, prefers Donald Trump because he is amenable to side deals. For instance, China promised to provide exclusive access to certain agricultural markets for U.S products, considerably disadvantaging countries like Canada and Brazil, which also compete for access to those markets. I think the primary concern for China is that Biden might be successful in forming a multilateral institutionalized alliance to counter China’s violations of the established rules of the international order. This would considerably inhibit China’s geostrategic plans if they’re forced to engage in a fair and transparent manner. We haven’t seen the Chinese government expressing congratulations to Biden on his presidential victory. I think that’s partially because the Chinese government thought Trump would win.

The U.S under the America First policy has been engaging with China bilaterally. I think the election of Biden is likely to be well received in Canada, as it is anticipated he will have a consistent policy towards China and maintain international commitments. recognizes that alliances with likeminded democracies, including Canada are an effective way of pressuring China to comply with international norms.


Q: What is the future of Canada’s stance on Huawei & 5G under a Biden presidency?

A: Our government committed to making a decision on Huawei and 5G before the last election. Then, it was to be after the election and now quite a bit of time has passed. “Ghosting” appears to be our strategy from what I have heard from some Canadian government officials. The decision has already been made by Canada not to allow Bell and Telus to install Huawei 5G technology. If they go with Ericsson, Nokia, or Samsung 5G then a lot of the existing Huawei kit in their networks will have to be replaced at considerable expense. The Conservatives have already committed to providing some compensation for companies that take out their existing Huawei kit. I don’t believe the liberals have committed to offering this. The question of Huawei is not really a question of technological rivalry, in the sense that there is no U.S telecommunications firm that offers 5G technology. It’s only the Scandinavian and South Korean firms that currently have that ability.

I think the U.S does have very valid concerns over Huawei 5G in two aspects. One is access— the key to computer hacking. As a function of the Chinese communist state, Huawei would be required to provide access if the CCP branch transmits such an order. There’s also the general untrustworthiness of Huawei and the risk with knowledge of critical infrastructure like water, electricity, and the internet, Huawei could install kill switches into their hardware and software solutions that would give them a strategic advantage in times of conflict. Huawei has been complicit in the installation of repressive surveillance and censorship technologies inside China. It has also exported its technology to foreign authoritarian dictatorships to facilitate and consolidate the rule of governments that seek to limit the freedoms of their citizens and restrict information about political alternatives coming into the country.

The U.S has made it clear that if Canada installs Huawei 5G it would be unlikely that the U.SA would continue sharing critical intelligence with us as part of the Five Eyes. This would be devastating for Canada both in terms of the border and the Arctic. Due to the U.S sanctions program restricting Huawei from accessing chips, Huawei is currently unable to respond to contracts for handsets and hardware relating to 5G. Until China can produce these critical components domestically it’s unlikely that Huawei will be able to compete in 5G. The matter would be more-or-less resolved in that.


Q: How will a Biden administration influence the Chinese-Taiwan relationship as well as the ongoing situation in Hong-Kong? How would Canada’s relations be impacted?

A: It is hard to know how Biden will manage China. He has said that he regards Xi Jinping as “a thug”. He also has identified the Chinese policy towards the Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as a genocide. He hopes to lead an international campaign to pressure, isolate, and punish China. So, from that point of view, his stance on China is much more aggressive than the Canadian government’s. The issue is whether or not Biden will carry on the general orientation of the Trump administration under current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo with regard to how the U.S would stand for the international rules based order, which includes, respect for freedom, democracy, rights, and entitlements of citizens in those areas.

If Biden decides to negotiate a grand bargain with China that would include concerns that weren’t central to the Trump administration, such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, particularly relations with North Korea, and other issues like global health, then he might be prepared to make concessions to the Chinese on Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s population is 7 million and the population of China is 1.393 billion. From a power calculus Hong Kong is not that significant. Nonetheless, I hope Biden will in fact stand to respect the rights of citizens of Hong Kong under China’s international treaty commitments, specifically the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which Canada endorsed. If Biden is serious about enforcing China’s obligations to international multilateral treaties, he will stand for Hong Kong.

Canada’s policy toward Taiwan is different to that of the U.S. Canada simply acknowledges the mainland claim over Taiwan under the formula of our diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1970. The U.S has a greater commitment to China’s approach to the sovereignty of Taiwan. To what extent the U.S would support Taiwan sovereignty remains to be seen. In terms of Canada’s overall approach to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong—presently we have a highly asymmetrical power relationship with China, which can coerce Canada in various ways through economic threats.

We’ve seen the gross violation of agricultural commodities export contracts. For instance, the $3 billion dollars a year of annual exports of canola seeds to China stopped. China is also engaged in hostage diplomacy to coerce Canada politically, having held Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig for 703 days without any justification. Both Biden and Pompeo have proposed that there should be an institutionalization of an alliance of democracies that develop a concerted approach to counter China’s violations of the international rules-based order in diplomacy and trade. Presently Canada is reluctant to respond in any way to China’s outrages against us out of fear we’d be subject to economic retaliation. If there was an alliance with common action where likeminded allies responded simultaneously to China, then China would be unable to engage in retaliation without a considerable cost to itself.

We are considering offering safe harbor to persons in Hong Kong who would be subject to political persecution under the national security law enacted last July 1st, but our government has been considering this possibility for a long time. Clearly there are reasons why we haven’t been doing the right thing by offering Canadian refuge, based on Canada’s support of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and China unilaterally violating it. The global community, our likeminded allies in Europe and East Asia, have been reluctant to collaborate with us, because of uncertainty about the reliability and trustworthiness of the Trump administration. It’s possible that an international institution may be formed under Biden, who has a very long record of integrity and honesty in his dealings, and as someone who is committed to maintaining America’s international obligations. That would then mean Canada no longer has to show weakness in our relations with China. It would allow us to regain respect from the Chinese regime and allow us to show strength in concert with our allies. Under those circumstances, Chinese cost- benefit-analysis could tip towards returning safely to Canada so that relations could return to a fairer and more reciprocal basis.



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