Q&A: What’s at stake for B.C. in Harper’s trip to China?

Paul Evans | BCBusiness
UBC professor Paul Evans

BCBusiness sat down with UBC’s Paul Evans to talk about Harper’s trip to China, its consequences for Vancouver and the contentious public perceptions of Canada-China ties

Asia expert Dr. Paul Evans, of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research and former Co-CEO of the Asian Pacific Foundation, is a longtime advocate of co-operative and human security. His latest book on the Canada-China relationship, Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper, was released in March. BCBusiness recently spoke to Dr. Evans about China’s plans for a Renminbi hub in this country, its place in bilateral ties and the contentious role that the public perception of China plays in Canadian politics.
What is the significance of a Renminbi hub within the Canada-China relationship?
It’s a small, incremental step towards a deeper integration of Canada into global China and the way China is operating in the world. It is not a big step, but it has a political dimension, as FIPA and approved destination status, did, far bigger than it’s real economic impact.

We’re playing small ball, if you’ll excuse the baseball metaphor, in Canada-China relations now. We’re trying to hit singles, when other countries are up there swinging for doubles, triples and home runs. The Canadians have done a good job on FIPA; in negotiating something that is better than almost anybody else has and it’s going to be the gold standard for others, but other countries are trying to go beyond it by making concessions to China that go way beyond what Canada offered.  

The last economic treaty between Canada and China, FIPA, came under a barrage of criticism unseen since NAFTA. How would the Renminbi hub fit into the conversation around bilateral Canada-China ties?
The discourse is pretty negative: fears are being exaggerated and they feed off each other. My sense is that this is going to be a real problem. The Conservatives have a very limited scope on the China policy, they’re basically interested in economic issues, we don’t play geopolitics with the Chinese anymore, we don’t even discuss human rights with the Chinese anymore, instead, we focus on an economic agenda. But there is now such negativity in large part because the Conservative government has never given a formal statement to Canadians, a China policy if you will, that addresses what it’s doing and why China matters to Canada.
Within this larger relationship, what role does the B.C. government play? 
We’ve got provincial delegations going to China and India and I think in some ways, they’re filling the leadership gap. I would call them pretty much practical and functional and at the level of encouraging business, educational opportunities in exchange, … this is good. The challenge is that in Chinese eyes, they have cities bigger than the population of Canada. 
Could you outline the background on FIPA and its predecessors? How long have these agreements been in development?
It was a long negotiation, several years and very complicated. But why the story is interesting is, to me, not the ultimate ratification of it, but in part the public reactions to it. The large amount of negativity but also the delay, how do we explain 22 months from the time it was signed until it was ratified? And that points to some of the deep divisions inside the Conservative party and inside the cabinet on how to manage the China file in general.  
Why did the ratification of a trade treaty become particularly political?
Canada had been working on two separate agreements, the foreign investment protection and promotion agreement (FIPA) and another pertaining to uranium sales to China, that were announced at roughly the same time. The response was fascinating; Ottawa had prepared defences of the uranium sales treaty, i.e. why they were doing what they were doing. They thought this was going to be where the controversy was.

But in fact the controversy was about the FIPA, in part, because of, there provincial premiere who was very, very keen to see uranium sales happen, among other forces, so it just slipped beneath the radar with almost no public discussion. Then FIPA became a kind of perfect storm of controversy. There’s a whole coalition, or at least there were many different groups, that had concerns about free trade agreements in general and that got caught up in increasing negativity about China. The NDP and others added on to this story, by discussing it as a process matter, that the Harper government was hiding things or doing them in secrecy, which they were (and they tend to be secretive when it comes to most treaties of this kind). It wasn’t specific to this case.