Trudeau must sleep with a different elephant than his father did: Don Pittis

Justin Trudeau's dad talked of Canada's relationship with the U.S. as sleeping with an elephant. Canada must tap those skills to deal with the new rising global power of China.

Canada needs to play the long game in its economic and political relations with China

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must reach out to Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, often described as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who rules over a country suddenly realizing its enormous global power. (Reuters)

In some ways, despite its long national history, China is like a feisty teen suddenly discovering enormous adult power.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels to China this week in advance of the G20 meeting in Hangzhou, he must deal with a country, and a leader, of vast and growing strength.

While his father spoke of the U.S. as the elephant Canada had to sleep with, the younger Trudeau must face a new global pachyderm.

"Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant," then prime minister Pierre Trudeau said in 1969 to the Washington press. "No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

A transformed beast

Since then, while the United States continues to be the most important elephant in our lives, a new one has appeared.
Canada's then prime minister Pierre Trudeau shakes hands with Mao Zedong on Oct. 13, 1973. They met at Chungnanhai while Trudeau was on an official visit to China. (Canadian Press)

The China that the government of Trudeau père recognized in 1970 and that he visited in 1973 has transformed into a much more potent beast.

And according to David Dewitt, a Canadian expert in international affairs and diplomacy, that means Justin Trudeau's visit could be as significant in some ways as his father's.

"China is asserting itself on the international stage in a way we haven't seen ever before," says Dewitt, a professor at Toronto's York University. "It's an economic power. It's increasingly a political presence. It increasingly has military capability."

Enormous strides

Despite a current slowdown, China's economic clout continues to accelerate, and, while it may have trouble on its way, there is no reason to assume its long-term economic transition is over. 
China has made an enormous transition, raising the standard of living of millions of people and allowing them to purchase consumer goods such as these electric scooters in Beijing. (Reuters)

"The economic upswing led to a huge growth in the Chinese middle class, and the enormous strides China made in distributing wealth has been remarkable," says Dewitt.

He says that in the last 20 years China has also transformed by creating tools such as share and capital markets, and relatively independent domestic and global corporations that will allow its growth to continue. Evidence of that increasing market power keeps pouring in.

Growing market clout

"China now represents a bigger slice of the global equity pie than Europe" said a headline in the Wall Street journal last week, quoting research from Bespoke Investment Group.
How do you say no to an elephant? Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan visit an animal sanctuary in Harare, Zimbabwe in December 2015. (Reuters)

In the Globe and Mail last week, China scholar Charles Burton laid out some of the complications Trudeau faces in his meetings with Chinese officials.

His frank assessment warns of "serious issues" that Trudeau and his delegation must face as they seek to solve trade disputes while maintaining a tough line on human rights, Chinese expansionism and China's growing use of secret police under the powerful Xi Jinping.

"These are scary times," writes Burton. He fears Trudeau will compromise on one to get the other.

John Ravenhill, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont., is far more optimistic.

Utter realism 

Ravenhill worked for 25 years in Australia and studied that country's close trade and political relationship with China. He says it is impossible to divorce economic interests from other political concerns such as human rights. 

"Any country dealing with China that wants to have a deeper economic relationship is at the same time still going to have to be signalling that there are aspects of China's policies it doesn't find acceptable," says Ravenhill. 

"I don't think that caving is something the Chinese are going to respect, either," he says. "China is utterly realistic in its foreign policy. It expects others to have different interests. It expects them to express those interests, but in a respectful way."

York University's Dewitt agrees.

"[Trudeau] has to create a new sense of confidence that, after 10 years of difficulty under the Harper regime, Canada is back understanding that China has legitimate national interests, China is a global player, and that China itself is going through some domestic internal difficulties," he says.

The U.S. has been pushy, too

In its own teenage years, the United States was pushy and craved respect. It was expansionist, invading Mexico, unilaterally declaring its right to expand from coast to coast  and pushing the Monroe Doctrine that staked its claim to power in the Americas. Its expansion was only stopped by a civil war.

As U.S. global power expanded further, Canada still found ways to stand up to its giant neighbour, sometimes publicly going its own way on issues like Vietnam, the positioning of nuclear missiles on Canadian soil and the invasion of Iraq. Sometimes its influence came quietly, based on deep economic and cultural integration.

Canadian diplomats have learned strategies for dealing with elephants.

While it is hard to imagine Canada ever becoming as closely integrated with China as it is with the U.S., it is right for Trudeau to look to the long game of gradual influence, rather than drawing a line in the sand, thinking  Canada can face down an elephant.

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​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.