Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Engaging China requires a balance of values and interests

Special to Globe and Mail Update

The recent exchange in the news media between the Canadian government and China's assistant minister of foreign affairs underlines fundamental differences in the approach to building the kind of relationship where difficult questions can be raised, discussed and settled in a mutually respectful manner that is likely to lead to change. Beijing may place more importance on relationships than other governments, but an open and trusting rapport is a prerequisite to achieving diplomatic goals for most countries.

We support the view that foreign policy toward China must represent the full range of Canada's values and interests, which cannot be pursued in isolation or with one as a precondition to the other. Trade, investment and human rights are all indisputably important elements of the bilateral relationship. No one suggests that Canada pursue a purely commercial relationship. But if the focus is solely on human rights and public rebukes in a situation absent of a trusting relationship, Canada runs the risk of seeing its values ignored without seeing any of its interests met.

There is no doubt that political change in China has proceeded much more slowly than economic development, which has lifted hundreds of millions above the World Bank poverty line since China's opening in 1978. It is not surprising that Beijing has focused on economic rights during its initial growth. But there are many indicators that an understanding of human rights is developing and progress is being made.

China's five-year plan for 2006-2011 focuses very specifically on the quality of growth and social stability. This includes the need to develop environmental protection standards and enforcement, social safety nets, educational improvements, health reform, measures to improve conditions for migrant labour and other goals. Officials spend considerable time examining foreign experiences to see how they might be applied to China.

Canada has played a positive role in this development through engagement from a variety of sources: business, Canadian International Development Agency projects, university exchanges and training programs. China has sought advice from Canadian insurers on various aspects of establishing an effective public pension fund system, a key priority for future social stability. Canadian-trained Chinese judges have been making landmark decisions. While it is often assumed that human rights are universal and inalienable, the institutions we build to protect them are imperfect and are constantly evolving. That has been the case for Canada — our experience is what we need to share.

China has demonstrated considerable openness to hearing ideas. But it is one thing to present ideas and suggestions; it is quite another to make demands. The country's colonial past has made it highly sensitive to perceived outside pressure. There is a growing popular resentment to foreign lecturing in the absence of deep understanding of the Chinese realities. (Even in the Western world, lecturing is a delicate affair, be it presidential candidates in France or U.S. ambassadors in Ottawa.)

With growing global influence, China has become an increasingly active participant in the global economic and political system. An accelerated timetable of World Trade Organization accession, which imposed significant hardships for Chinese domestic firms, demonstrated just how determined the country was to become a full global player. China made a similar commitment to constructive participation in the United Nations and its agencies, as well as in multilateral financial institutions. The importance of China's integration in the international system is perhaps best demonstrated by Beijing's participation in reaching a tentative deal on Pyongyang's nuclear program. If we imagine an isolated, marginalized and nuclear China alongside North Korea, in place of an integrated and engaged China, the situation in that part of the world would be considerably more critical and less predictable.

There is no doubt that the bilateral relationship is complicated by attempts to resolve ongoing consular cases. Certainly, we expect China and other countries to fully recognize and respect the rights of Canadian citizens abroad, and for our government to pursue those interests vigorously. The challenge is overcoming fundamental differences in perspectives in cases such as those of Huseyin Celil and Lai Changxing.

Both Canada and China need to pursue acceptable solutions to individual cases without risking a wide range of bilateral interests. A mutually respectful relationship is a precondition to finding workable solutions to specific cases and maintaining the other dialogues central to the relationship. (China contends Mr. Celil's name is one of many aliases for Guler Dilaver, a Chinese citizen who was under an Interpol red notice at the time that Mr. Celil successfully applied for refugee status in Canada. Mr. Lai remains one of China's most wanted fugitives, but is afforded all due process in Canada.)

Massive social change is clearly under way in China. In order to help encourage and facilitate this reform, we need to appreciate that effective and constructive dialogue, on any subject, is based on a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. And mutual respect requires some understanding of the differences between our own two societies. In this regard, the recent visits by the Canadian Ministers of Finance, International Trade, Natural Resources and Agriculture were most valuable.

Let us therefore engage China effectively on human rights. Let us also have a comprehensive and balanced framework for our bilateral and multilateral discussions. For the pursuit of values without also emphasizing interests puts both at risk.

Sergio Marchi is a former international trade minister and ambassador to the WTO who serves as president of the Canada China Business Council.

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