Former ambassador’s urgent message: we must pay attention to China

Sure, some aspects of that complex country are undeniably unlikeable. But not engaging with China is not an option.

By Joan Cohen

“For Canadians, exposure to China’s unbridled exuberance and seemingly limitless appetite, to its dreams and ambitions, and to its long-nurtured fears and resentments is an entirely new phenomenon. We are still not paying attention to the sweep and significance of what is happening, much less thinking clearly and carefully about how to respond.”

This wakeup call to Canadians is certainly not the first, but it’s a deeply pondered meditation, and compelling one, from a retired public servant well-equipped to point out where our nation could be looking for solutions. It comes from his book,

Middle Power, Middle Kingdom which has just appeared in Canada’s book stores.

David Mulroney, retired Canadian ambassador to China, speaks dispassionately of his walking trips along Bloor Street in Toronto a couple of years ago, where Mandarin was to be heard more than English and Chinese-speaking shoppers “represent 50 per cent and often far more” of the customer base of the very expensive stores.

“Almost everything emanating from China – from its economic power to its growing impact on global security, the environment, health and food safety – is happening on a scale and at a pace that is unprecedented,” David Mulroney marvels.

The former ambassador is ideally placed to look at the challenges arising from this from a Canadian perspective

First as a junior officer with external affairs and then moving up the ranks, he served in Seoul, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei, with several ambassadorships along the way. He also ran the Asia branch of foreign affairs, and served as that department’s associate deputy minister. Eventually, portentously, he would take on a job as the Canadian government’s co-ordinator for this country’s mission Afghanistan.

The lessons he would learn here helped arm David Mulroney for the work ahead, and help hi see with eyes eventually wide open how Canada is falling behind in its will and capacity to function effectively in today’s vastly changed world. And how it must begin to organize itself to remedy matters.

Back home in Canada, amidst the economic problems of 2009 and following, China was turning into a key force in supporting Canada’s fishing, mineral and lumber industries. (Its leaders were gently urging Canada to join with it in negotiating a free trade deal. But in this, and other quiet signals of friendship, Canada had fallen silent.

On the one hand, it was failing to take a hard look at the world as it exists today, with the United States distracted and visibly a somewhat diminished power, and China with its Asian neighbours a rising political and economic force, as were other emerging nations. There was a role for Canada as a longtime middle power to play in the world something beyond inwardly focused politics, which outside countries have not been taking seriously.

By now, toughened by his Kandahar experience and a growing vision of what Canada could be, David Mulroney had come to Beijing as Canadian ambassador, watching as our relations with China warmed up and cooled.

“What I saw as my most important job was helping to build consensus in the Canadian government about the key objectives that we absolutely need to achieve in the relationship with China.

“Managing our relationship with China will require us to think more carefully about our interests and our assets. And we will need to do a much better job when it comes to the actual delivery of foreign policy…

“There are some aspects of modern China – starting with the nation’s record on human rights – that are undeniably unlikeable. These and other differences will generate real tensions in the Canada-China relationship, and dealing with them will almost certainly be an increasing challenge for us.

“But not engaging China just isn’t an option.”

We need to hear more from David Mulroney in the period ahead. And it is critical for this country that we try to listen.

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