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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Where China fits in Harper's endgame

February 16, 2012

By MICHAEL DEN TANDT, The Gazette February 13, 2012
 

The bottom line on Canada's shiny new "strategic partnership" with totalitarian China? Stephen Harper is playing hardball with the Americans in a way that neither Jean Chrétien nor Paul Martin would ever have dared. Because of the U.S. electoral cycle, it's a game he thinks he can win. But caution is warranted.

Let's consider, first of all, the nature of the country into whose bed we appear to be so eagerly leaping. I will quote directly from the U.S. State Department's exceedingly thorough 2010 human rights report on China:

"As in previous years, citizens did not have the right to change their government. Principal human rights problems during the year included: extrajudicial killings, including executions without due process; enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, including prolonged illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities known as 'black jails'; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; detention and harassment of journalists, writers, dissidents, petitioners and others who sought to peacefully exercise their rights under the law; a lack of due process in judicial proceedings, political control of courts and judges; closed trials; the use of administrative detention; restrictions on freedoms to assemble, practice religion and travel; failure to protect refugees and asylumseekers; pressure on other countries to forcibly return citizens to China; intense scrutiny of, and restrictions on, non-governmental organizations; discrimination against women, minorities and persons with disabilities; a coercive birth-limitation policy, which in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; prohibitions on independent unions and a lack of protection for workers' right to strike; and the use of forced labour, including prison labour. Corruption remains endemic."

It is, admittedly, a mouthful. Perhaps that's why that passage and others like it didn't appear in PMO staffers' tweets from Beijing, or indeed media reports of the prime minister's triumphant Panda tour.

So the question is: Why would Harper allow the perception that Canada is trading in the old mare - the United States - for a brand-spanking new one, China, when the old mare still has legs and the new one may be lame? To be fair, there's more to Harper's China gambit than just perception. The relaxation of non-proliferation safeguards to allow the sale of billions worth of uranium, nuclear fuel, to China, for example, is real. This is a 180-degree turnabout from the days when the Harper government was making nice with Tibet's exiled Dalai Lama.

There are two drivers here, it seems to me. Harper understands that "face" is all-important in China. This requires, before one even gets to the negotiating table, there must be a mutual exchange of respect. This is at the heart of the Team Canada concept Chrétien pioneered in the 1990s: You open doors in Beijing by showing up amid great fanfare, with a lot of VIPs with fancy titles, who can engage in personal bridge-building with their Chinese counterparts. Unless you take that initial step - showing up with a public gift, figuratively speaking - you're not even in the game.

Canada is still just on China's doorstep, in other words. We are a world away, "memorandums of understanding" notwithstanding, from moving beyond America's economic orbit and into China's. With respect to the oilsands, Canadians can talk tough about selling crude to the Chinese if the Americans "don't want it." The reality is that the bitumen must be shipped. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific is still years from completion, if it ever gets built at all.

The second factor is political. There is no love lost between the Obama and Harper administrations. Obama's decision to shelve the Keystone XL Pipeline was a significant setback for Canada and a personal one for Harper. Now, with each media headline about Canadian rapprochement with China, Obama's Republican opponents gain new ammunition with which to beat him about the head and neck. Harper has to figure that, ultimately, the cumulative pressure will result in Keystone XL going forward - which is his true strategic endgame.

Not bad, if you're playing chess. Here's the caution: Many around the world are rushing to count America out. Canada's central bank governor, Mark Carney, joined the chorus last month when he said: "It's going to take a number of years before they get back to the U.S. that we used to know - in fact, they are not, in our opinion, ultimately going to get back to the U.S. that we used to know."

Um, maybe. But anyone who studies history will know that the U.S. regularly undergoes cycles of despair and resurrection. Remember 1988, when an economically triumphant Japan was poised to "buy Pearl Harbour?"

A year later, the Soviet empire collapsed. Historically, those who bet against America - specifically U.S. innovation, enterprise and liberty - lose.

It would be unwise, indeed, for Canada, whatever the allure of "Red China rising," to do so now.

mdentandt@postmedia.com

Twitter/mjdentandt

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