Canada and China: Facilitating Transactions or Building a Strategic Understanding?

Memo #45

Paul Evans

Forty years of diplomatic relations between Canada and China were celebrated in October 2010 at multiple events held in both countries. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Harper proclaimed that the bilateral strategic partnership “has never been more promising.” In Beijing, Canada’s Ambassador stated that “if ever there was a golden age in Sino-Canadian relations it is now.”

Is it so?

The Conservative government’s experiment with a China policy based on “cool politics, warm economics” was quietly abandoned in 2008. Subsequently there has been a stream of 14 ministerial visits to China and return visits by the Chinese President and the Minister of Transportation and Communications.

Chinese officials characterize this as a step-by-step restoration of mutual confidence. Yet despite the positive tone and increased pace of exchange, the meaning of the strategic partnership remains unclear.

To put immediate issues including two-way investment and energy and environmental cooperation into strategic perspective, the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies co-hosted a dialogue in Shanghai in November 2010. Participants included academics, diplomats, and political officials with long experience in Sino-Canadian relations.

The re-examination of the diplomatic negotiations between 1968 and 1970 was central to these discussions. Two retired Chinese diplomats had unprecedented access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs archives. They painted a vivid picture of Zhou Enlai’s pivotal role and decision making at the most senior levels during the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1970 Canada was important to China for two strategic reasons. It was located next to the United States but had a foreign policy “somewhat independent” of America’s. And, Trudeau’s government had a perspective on China and a post-Cold War international system that was bigger and more enticing to China than immediate commercial opportunities.

Fast forward to 2010. For senior Chinese leaders, Canada is of interest because of material needs, history, and multiple transactions. But they continue to look for high-level political contacts and a bigger picture narrative of mutual value.

In a messy multi-centric world in a G-20 era, does Conservative Canada have the imagination or intention to re-construct that compelling strategic vision?

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  • Frolic, Michael B., “The Trudeau Initiative” (In “Reluctant Adversaries: Canada and the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1970” by Paul Evans and Michael B. Frolic, eds., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991). (For the Canadian side of the recognition negotiations).
  • A full report on the November 2010 dialogue in Shanghai, including 6 commissioned papers will be released in February 2011

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