Sino-Canadian Relations Enter Uncharted Waters

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 12

Only eighteen months ago, China’s relations with Canada seemed to be at their best in history. President Hu Jintao had visited Prime Minister Paul Martin in Ottawa, declaring that a bilateral strategic partnership was established and the two countries would cooperate in a range of areas from energy security to environment to trade and investment. Since the Conservatives ousted the Liberals and formed a minority government in early 2006, however, Sino-Canadian relations have entered a period of uncertainty. While the new government in Ottawa underwent a learning curve in formulating its policy toward China, Beijing has displayed no urgency to adopt any fresh initiatives.

A Withering “Strategic Partnership”

Under the Liberals, from 1993 to 2006, the Canadian government took active measures to promote engagement with China. Both Prime Ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin pursued closer economic relations with Beijing. The “Team Canada” approach, developed by the Chrétien cabinet with much hope and hype, was first applied to furthering economic and trade relations with China. The idea of provincial premiers and hundreds of Canadian business executives following the prime minister on a mission to Canada’s major trade partners was to demonstrate a new commitment by the federal government to make Canada more competitive in a globalizing world.

The Liberal government managed to further upgrade Canada’s political relations with China through a number of important phases. In 1997, Beijing optimistically labeled its relationship with Ottawa as a “Trans-century Comprehensive Partnership.” In response to the Chinese initiative, a Canadian Strategic Working Group, centered on the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, but with the participation of other federal and provincial government agencies and China experts across Canada, was created in early 2004. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Ottawa in the fall of 2005, the two sides officially elevated the bilateral relationship from “cooperative partnership” to “strategic partnership”—a status reserved for Beijing’s most important and trustworthy international partners.

Both the Chrétien and Martin cabinets also made achieving closer energy ties with Beijing one of their top China policy objectives. Major Canadian missions to China have focused on energy. When Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. completed two CANDU 6 nuclear reactors at Qinshan, outside of Shanghai, on time and within budget, Chrétien went to China to celebrate. A major highlight of Martin’s official visit in January 2005 was the signing of the Canada-China Statement on Energy: Cooperation in the 21st Century, which identified three priorities of cooperation in energy and related areas.

The new Conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, did not display a high level interest in any of these China policy initiatives implemented by the Liberals in most of 2006. For months, Foreign Minister Peter Mackay did not respond to the Chinese Ambassador’s request for a meeting; the Conservatives criticized China’s human rights record; the annual bilateral governmental human rights dialogue was assessed with little value and suspended, and a senior China policy consultation session did not take place until last October. While Beijing was waiting for Ottawa to adopt a more favorable foreign policy, the Canadian government stopped using the term “strategic partnership” to characterize bilateral relations. In his recent and first visit to China, Foreign Minister Mackay stated that he was seeking a “constructive and comprehensive relationship” with China (Toronto Star, April 30).

The “Rights versus Trade” Debate

China’s human rights violations, which preoccupied the Canadian public’s perception of China and then-conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s China policy in 1989, gradually diminished from being an important factor in Sino-Canadian relations under the leadership of the Liberals. Even under the administration of Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who emphasized the promotion of human rights, Canada took a subdued approach toward China on its human rights record. The Liberal idea of an engagement strategy with China on human rights was to avoid open confrontation and, instead, to adopt more subtle and indirect means to hopefully influence Chinese behavior.

The Conservatives, during their tenure as the opposition, often clashed with the Liberals and criticized the government’s policy of prioritizing trade over human rights. In fact, Canada’s China policy has often been a subject of heated debates in the Canadian political discourse. Canadians tend to repeat a familiar “trade versus human rights” debate during the period surrounding a Canada-China bilateral summit. Opposition politicians, editorial pundits and certain NGO groups criticize the government for blindly pursuing economic interests while not substantially condemning human rights violations in China; the government counters such criticism by raising human rights concerns in the summit agenda, and the Chinese accommodate what they see as a formality. Once the high-level meeting is over, most of the contentious issues disappear from the news coverage and little follows in terms of government policies.

When the Conservatives returned to power, however, they signaled a change of course by emphasizing human rights issues. The annual bilateral governmental human rights dialogue, which was celebrated by the Liberals as a major instrument of encouragement, received a critical review as having little impact [1]. While the Conservatives held a series of hearings on China’s human rights record in Parliament, the 2006 dialogue did not take place.

What dominated both the media and government agenda on China’s human rights for much of the past year was the case of Huseyin Celil (Yu Shanjiang in Chinese), a Canadian citizen of Xinjiang Uyghur origin. Celil had escaped from a Chinese prison in 2000 and later acquired refugee status and Canadian citizenship. He was wanted in China, however, for terrorist and separatist activities. When Celil was arrested by Uzbek authorities and extradited to China in June last year, Beijing refused to recognize his Canadian citizenship on the grounds that Celil was a wanted fugitive who belonged to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which is considered by both China and the UN to be a terrorist organization [2]. Denying Canada consular access to Celil, a Chinese court tried Celil in April and sentenced him to life in prison for “terrorist activities and plotting to split the country.”

Ottawa seemed to have little influence over Beijing on the Celil case, despite the fact that both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister Mackay raised the issue with their Chinese counterparts. Beijing’s position clearly reflects its deep concern that it does not offer any compromises that could potentially weaken its control over Xinjiang.

The Canadian approach has also sent mixed signals. While the official stance was to obtain consular access, Prime Minister Harper also referred to the Celil case in the context of promoting human rights. On his way to Hanoi last November for the APEC summit, Harper indicated to reporters that he would raise the Celil case with Chinese President Hu Jintao, with whom Canada had requested a meeting on the sidelines. “I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values,” Harper claimed. “They don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar” (CTV, November 16, 2006). Such statements, when expressed in media reports or op-ed pages, may have little effect on China. When it was articulated by the Canadian prime minister, however, Beijing likely interpreted the Conservative government’s China policy as supporting the separatist movement in Xinjiang. That perception may have influenced the Chinese decision for Hu Jintao to refuse to meet Harper in a more “formal” setting in Hanoi as it had arranged with other major heads of state. Instead, the Hu-Harper meeting lasted a mere 15 minutes–enough time for only the diplomatic formalities and customary greetings.

In the recent G8 summit in Germany, Hu and Harper again met at the sidelines. This time, there was no media storm or controversy like the one surrounding the last meeting. Yet, the pattern of communication remained more or less the same. Harper, while acknowledging the positive progress China made in the past 25 years, again emphasized the issue of human rights, pressing China to improve its image prior to the 2008 Olympics. He also raised the Celil case again with Hu (Globe and Mail, June 9). Hu politely listened to Harper’s concerns regarding the human rights issues, did not offer any concrete promises of action on the Celil case.

Some “Irritations” That Won’t Go Away

The Harper government, however, has not abandoned trade and economic considerations in its China policy. While most Canadians seem to support the idea that Canada places more emphasis on human rights in its relations with China, there are also growing criticism and pressure for the Conservatives to formulate a more effective China policy that balances both human rights and economic ties. After struggling through a precipitous learning curve, Canada has, since last fall, begun to send a delegation of its ministers to China to represent the following areas of concern: agriculture, natural resources, international trade, finance and, most recently, foreign affairs. In return, China has sent a number of its deputy ministers to visit Canada, the most recent of which was Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai who visited Ottawa after attending the second U.S.-China strategic economic dialogue. China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is in charge of the country’s energy policy, will lead a delegation of top Chinese energy companies to participate in a major Canada-China economic cooperation conference in Edmonton, Alberta next month [3].

Yet, the issues of human rights and trade are only two of the numerous problems that exist between China and Canada. There are, as one Chinese diplomat characterized to this author, other persistent “irritations” in bilateral relations. For instance, Beijing has expressed frustration regarding the fact that China’s most wanted fugitive, Lai Changxing, who was accused of embezzling billions of dollars through an elaborate smuggling ring, has been residing in Canada since 1999 and fighting extradition proceedings in the Canadian legal system for the past seven years. There are other suspects of financial crimes who have also taken refuge in Canada and whose lawyers are using China’s human rights record and its incomplete legal protection as the first line of defense. There is a widespread perception that China has not carried out its promise to grant Canada the status of “designated tourist country” primarily because Lai has not been sent back to China. At the same time, there is also a growing Chinese perception that Canada is becoming a safe haven for Chinese fugitives.

Another issue, which has been prominently featured in the media and resulted in a major diplomatic row between the Conservative government and Beijing, pertains to national security concerns. Foreign Minister Peter Mackay first mentioned the matter not long after the change of government last year, claiming that the Canadian government was “very concerned about economic espionage” from China. “It is something we want to signal, that we want to address, and to continue to raise with the Chinese at the appropriate time,” said MacKay (CTV, April 20). It appears that his concerns were not based on new evidence. Rather, the Chinese spy charges originated in a 2003-2004 report from the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS). While not explicitly mentioning China, the report suggested that there could be up to 1,000 Chinese agents and informants operating in Canada for the purposes of collecting economic, scientific and military information, among other secrets.

The Chinese responded strongly, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang asserting that China had not engaged “in any so-called economic espionage activities in Canada.” In addition, Chinese Ambassador to Canada Lu Shumin appeared on CTV, declaring, “There is no Chinese espionage in Canada,” and warned, “These kinds of accusations do not help the relationship and are not conducive to the development of this strategic partnership between the two countries.” Harper, firmly backing his foreign minister, insisted that Mackay’s comments were well-founded. He stated, “We have some concerns with certain activities of the Chinese government in this country and we do intend to raise them at the appropriate time” (CTV, April 20).

Still, in a recent appearance before a Senate committee hearing, the head of CSIS Jim Judd claimed that China is on the top of Canada’s anti-espionage operation, with about half of its agency’s total resources devoted to China. The charges seem to be wide-ranging, with Harper claiming that Chinese spies stole $1 billion worth of technological secrets from Canada every month (CP, April 30). Even the Chinese efforts to set up Confucius Institutes around the world are viewed by Canada’s spy agency as a national security concern (CP, May 29).

It is obvious that in the span of the past year and a half, Sino-Canada relations have entered a period of uncertainty. While economic ties continue to grow and many fundamental aspects of the bilateral relationship remain sound, policy adjustments on a range of issues are taking place in both capitals. Ottawa is now faced with the challenge of developing a coherent strategy toward China that would allow it to reassert its lost influence and effectively achieve its China policy objectives.


1. See Charles Burton, Assessment of the Canada-China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue. Report prepared for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, available online at

2. See Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu’s Regular Press Conference on 8 February 2007,

3. For the details of the visit, see