This past Thursday, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC), a Canadian think tank, hosted a panel discussion at the University of Manitoba on the mounting importance of Asia entitled “The rise of Asia: Are we ready?”
Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney (2009 to 2012), who now serves as co-chair of the APFC’s Task Force on Asia Competence, presented at the event.
Mulroney outlined the findings of a recent APFC report in his opening remarks to the panel, and argued that Canada needs to better prepare itself for the rising position of Asia in global affairs, particularly in the case of China.
“It seems pretty clear that we’re not, as Canadians, responding to this shift in a manner that is as smart, active, or connected as some other jurisdictions. But it’s worse than that. We’re not even having the conversation that precedes policy development and action,” said Mulroney.
Members of the panel then weighed in on the report, providing their thoughts and feedback. This involved mostly agreement with Mulroney, until the panel heard from William Lee, associate professor and director of the Asian studies centre at the U of M.
Lee took a critical view, focusing his comments on what he saw as “the report’s major flaw, which is its very narrow and partisan agenda.”
Lee outlined three points of criticism; namely, the report’s “unabashed business orientation,” overwhelming focus on China, and stance on Canada’s energy sector, the Alberta oil sands in particular.
“The unspoken assumption here is of further, even ramped up extraction from Alberta’s tar sands [ . . . ] This scenario, however, is not inevitable, and there are many Canadians, I among them, who are not convinced that Canada’s future well-being depends on finding ways to fast-track the exploitation of our natural resources, despite the certain environmental degradation for short-term economic gain.”
Lee also took issue with the relationship Canada has with China, and the uncritical stance the federal government has taken in regards to the latter’s human rights record.
“Nowhere is it mentioned in the report that China is governed by an authoritarian regime which limits free speech to its citizens and has a very poor human rights record. The report’s silence on these issues would seem to indicate that it is considered a non-issue. But is it? Whether we should simply abandon our own principles or values for the sake of business profits is a debate I believe [is] worth having,” said Lee.
Mulroney and Lee also clashed on the role that Confucius Institutes play in Canada, with Lee characterizing them as the Chinese government’s international “propaganda instruments.”
In his response, Mulroney acknowledged that “there is undeniable controversy around the work of at least some Confucius Institutes, where there was a perception, and in some cases fairly strong evidence, of an effort to influence Canadian standards, Canadian norms and values in ways that are inappropriate.”
He nonetheless took a much less critical view of the institutes, stating, “Let me be clear that everybody we talked to who has a Confucius Institute in their institution expressed nothing but positive feelings about the relationship.”
Following the panel discussion, Lee spoke briefly to the Manitoban about his views on the APFC.
“The organization never used to be such a pro-business lobby. When it was created in the 1980s, it was mainly focused on increasing understanding and things like that, but now it has certainly transformed into a mouthpiece for the business class in this country.”
When Stephen Harper initially came to power in 2006, he took a critical stance on the Chinese government, focusing on its poor human rights record – a policy for which Harper was applauded by some human rights groups, but bemoaned by those in favour of stronger trade ties with the country of 1.3 billion. Harper has since embraced trade with China.
Lee closed his remarks by emphasizing the need for Canada to balance trade and human rights considerations in its dealings with China, alluding to the externalities that come along with the gradual shifting of geopolitical dynamics.
“At the very least when we consider our relationship with China we must ask ourselves how the pursuit of our own economic interests impacts the citizens of that country and in what ways it serves directly or indirectly to support the non-democratic regime there.”