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Now that Harper’s gone, can we have a sensible talk about China?

In an election campaign that gave little attention to foreign policy to start with, the near total absence of any discussion of China policy, or relations with Asia more broadly, was astonishing.

The organizers of the only foreign policy debate during the campaign defended the omission of China on the grounds that there were no disagreements among the leaders. If this is true, we’re in big trouble.

The Conservative government approach to relations with China was characterized by disdain for Beijing, hostility towards Chinese state-owned enterprises, and an inability to recognize Canada’s self-interest in deepening ties with the People’s Republic. China skepticism in the Harper cabinet was moderated only by crude politicking for ethnic Chinese votes — a strategy that was both simplistic and insulting to Chinese Canadians, and which ultimately failed.

We can only hope that the new government does not feel the same way about China. And yet, a return to the Liberal approach to China policy pre-2008 will not be enough. While Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin understood well the importance of China as a fast-growing market for Canadian goods and services, Mr. Trudeau will have to come to terms with a China that is not only a big market, but also an increasingly assertive global power that is not content with the status quo of international relations.

The new government will face many difficult issues in navigating a relationship with China, from consular cases to cyber-espionage. Acknowledging that China is a global power does not mean acquiescence to Beijing. But moralizing lectures aimed at the Chinese leadership will carry even less weight in the years ahead than they did when Mr. Harper was in charge. The best way to improve civil liberties in China is the example that is set right here in Canada, where a large and well-connected diaspora has the ability and motivation to communicate “Canadian values” to the motherland.

To signal a fresh start to relations with China, there are five key messages that Ottawa should send:

We want the Chinese government to succeed. This statement may seem trite, but Beijing has reason to believe that many in the West, while sympathetic to the aspirations of Chinese citizens, secretly wish for the Chinese government to fail. This sentiment was pervasive in much of the Harper government’s approach to China policy. It went as far as an embrace of the belief that the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party is on the horizon and that Canada should be on the side of the angels. The bizarre effort to erect an Ottawa monument decrying the horrors of communism was just another not-so-subtle way of sending that message.

To say that Canada wants the Chinese government to succeed is not to condone the abuse of human rights or aggressive behaviour on territorial disputes. After all, Beijing would never espouse human rights abuses or imperialist actions (whatever the actual record might show — which is not uncommon for superpowers). But we should wholeheartedly wish for the Chinese government to succeed in its goal of structural reform — including a move to a more consumer-led and innovation-focused economy – and of better physical connectivity across the ancient silk routes, to name just two of Beijing’s flagship objectives.

We support China’s desire for a bigger voice in global and regional governance. Paul Martin deserves credit for his role in the creation of the G20, a forum in which China and other emerging powers have greater influence than in the status quo Bretton Woods organizations. Justin Trudeau has the opportunity to make good on Mr. Martin’s initiative by vigorously supporting China’s chairmanship of next year’s G20 meetings, and by advocating for genuine reform of the IMF and World Bank in favour of emerging countries.

Likewise, he can offer support for the leadership that China is already showing on climate change by demonstrating Canada’s own commitment to reducing carbon emissions and helping China make the transition to a more balanced energy mix.

Canada welcomes Chinese investment. And we really, really mean it. Not in the way the Conservatives begrudgingly allowed CNOOC to acquire Nexen and then imposed more stringent rules on state-owned enterprise investment in Canada. Or in the way that they quietly passed a bill deeming all foreign companies with links to government as tantamount to state-owned enterprises (which could in effect mean all Chinese enterprises) and subjecting them to special scrutiny under the Investment Canada Act.

The Conservative government in the U.K. has a wholly different attitude towards Chinese investment, matching words with deeds by opening major infrastructure projects to Chinese bidders, and even welcoming significant investment in the sensitive telecoms sector. The new government can send a very powerful signal by eliminating discrimination against state-owned enterprise investment in Canada, given that we are already protected by the net benefit test and national security screening.

Canada is committed to helping its citizens become more knowledgeable about China and China’s place in the world. A major stumbling block to stronger relations with China is in the sour attitudes that many Canadians have about Beijing. Much of this is due to a lack of knowledge about China and of Asia in general. Teaching about Asia and Asian languages is woefully lacking in the curricula of Canadian schools.

If we are serious about being an Asia Pacific nation, we have to invest in learning about the history, culture, economics and politics of Asian countries. Knowing more about Asia is not a guarantee of stronger relations, but ignorance and misinformation is worse. Unlike the previous government, which hid behind public opinion as a justification for erratic policy and inaction, the new administration should have the courage to articulate the need for stronger Asia literacy and competence. A five-year program to send 10,000 young Canadians to live, work and study in China would be an excellent way to start.

We are doing all of the above in our national self-interest. Building stronger ties with China is not about snubbing Washington or kowtowing to Beijing. It is about securing a stronger position for Canada in the 21st century and improving the livelihoods of Canadians across the country. Beijing understands self-interest and will respect this position.

More importantly, this kind of clear-eyed purpose in our approach to China will help avoid the many mistakes that we made in the last decade, including non-attendance at the 2008 Olympic Games, rejection of Beijing’s repeated offers of free trade talks, unilaterally declaring China as a “non-market economy” against the intent of China’s WTO accession agreement, and declining the opportunity of charter membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

If nothing else, a policy framework that privileges China’s importance for Canada and recognizes Beijing’s growing influence in the world will help political leaders come to sensible decisions about issues affecting relations with China — in Canada’s interest. A China Council initiated by the federal government, with support from the private sector and civil society, could provide the independent leadership and vision to forge a national consensus on the importance of China for Canada.

Justin Trudeau was not yet born when his father led Canada’s recognition of the People’s Republic. As we approach a half-century of diplomatic ties, the new prime minister can put his own stamp on the Canada-China relationship and establish Canada as a serious player in the Asia Pacific region.

Contributed to iPolitics