Stephen Harper goes to China – Is he cashing in or selling out?

March 4, 2012

Oil exports, two-way billion dollar investments, possibly a free-trade agreement, definitely a giant panda deal – oh my, it looks like Canada and China had a lot of catching up to do.

Over the course of just a few days, Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to arrange several multi-billion dollar bilateral agreements with China while simultaneously exploding Sino-Canadian joint projects on scientific research and both business and recreational tourist development. The agreements and investments made range from uranium, beef and rail car commodity exchanges to energy, agriculture, education and air travel research.

Natural concerns that arise from all these developments begin with the initial question of why these two countries are ratifying so many different deals in what seems to be an extremely short period of time? This contemplation is then followed by the much more controversial question, from the Canadian perspective anyway, of whether such a close relationship is desirable. To the former, one needs only to look south at the actor who has historically been responsible for shaping so much of Canada’s foreign policy, while the answer to the latter will remain forever entrenched in the bittersweet need to associate with a country that is globally respected for its growing economy but itself lacks respect for internationally defined human rights.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is welcomed in Beijing by China's premier, Wen Jiabao, and China's People's Liberation Army

Without going so far as to answer the first concern – why has Harper renewed Canadian-Sino relations so rapidly – by pointing solely to Obama’s recent behaviour, it is difficult to ignore Harper’s vindictive undertone in his direct response to this first concern: “We want to sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy, its that simple.” This is to say that America, who is by far Canada’s largest trading partner, does not want to buy Canadian energy, and there does exist empirical evidence to attest to Harper’s claim.

The Keystone Pipeline

President Obama’s decision to scrap the American-Canadian Keystone XL Pipeline Project forced Harper to search for an alternative partner in order to bolster Canada’s economy without completely relying on the United States – a sobering realization of the globalized neoliberal economy in which we live. The international economy has become so interconnected through market globalization that even a small decline in trade between two relatively interdependent countries can trigger a significant degree of economic anxiety. Gone are the days when starting a war served as a strategic boost to a country’s economy; tariffs and sanctions are 21st century means to deter an enemy.

Keystone Protesters

When your largest trading partner suddenly decides that the oil you are trying to sell them is unethical, 21st century economics dictates the need to find another partner. Perhaps in an attempt to secure the environmentalist vote, as it is after all an election year in America, Obama capitulated to environmentalist lobbying against the establishment of the American-Canadian Keystone Pipeline that would have shipped oil to the United States from Canada’s notoriously un-environmentally friendly oil sands in Alberta.

What the environmentalists didn’t calculate into their lobbying, however, is that Canada, as an economically rational actor, would simply look to sell its oil to someone else – someone else with comparatively atrocious environmental policies. Through Canada’s economic need to export its oil, the country found a buyer in China: a country who will now utilize Canadian oil in a far more non-environmental way than America’s carbon producing laws and restrictions would allow. Canada is now set to construct export facilities on the country’s pacific coast so as to efficiently sell their “unethical oil” to one of the most environmentally damaging countries in the world. American environmentalists will now instead be heavily relying on Middle East oil to get them to their next pro-environment, anti-Canadian, oxymoronic lobbying center.

It is undesirable for Canada to have its economic strength be contingent upon the whims of America’s internal politics; a reliable purchaser would serve the Canadian export to import ratio well. China is of the most elite class in terms of size and efficiency in manufacturing, an industry that necessarily requires a steady flow of oil to function optimally. From China’s fundamental need for oil to Canada’s abundance of it, a renewed trade relationship between the two seems to be economically necessary if America looks only eastward to purchase oil.

Stephen Harper’s government abides by arguably one of the most capitalistic agendas Canada has seen since Brian Mulroney and the origins of NAFTA (not solely because of their Conservativism but, again, because of the ever liberalized structure of the 21st century global economy). Exploding exports to a new trading partner is exactly what an economically driven government ought to do. With Western governments faltering on recession lines (Canada somewhat included), the keystone-snub presents an economically logical option to increase Canadian relations with China.

In context, the “rapid increase” of trade between Canada and China becomes less ambiguous: Canada, as one of the less-desperate Western governments, has seen not only America but a bulk of its traditional Western trading partners struggle with their economies while China continues to grow exponentially. Canada has jumped ahead of other countries in dealing with China before (recall the Trudeau-Nixon feuds over Western relations with Red China in the 70s), and it is entirely economically desirable to do it yet again. As America shifts its Pacific policy by increasing its military bastion in the area (see America’s Military Migration: Moving east of the Middle East), Harper has rationally decided to increase the amount of Canadian oil that will ride alongside American troops to China.

Although expert in playing the game of capitalism, Harper’s government seems to have abandoned the traditionally conservative position of being unreasonably tough on crime – but only when it comes to China. One cannot doubt Harper’s belligerent stance against human rights violators internationally, as seen in his readymade engagement in NATO for Libya’s liberation or his strong denouncement of Iran’s uranium enrichment projects. He is also perhaps even more aggressive domestically against the most minor of victimless crimes in Canada, as illustrated by his new telephone book-sized omnibus crime bill.

Yet, when Canada’s economy is at stake, Harper finds it difficult to find the time to denounce human rights violations that optimal trading partners commit. To be fair, Harper has publically condemned various aspects of China’s behaviour towards human rights – his international relations minister John Baird was reasonably vocal against China’s decision to veto a UN resolution to mitigate the unrest in Syria – but none of the millions of papers signed between Canada and China had anything to do with human rights.

Aside from their egregious environmental policies that carelessly pump greenhouse gases into the air and pollutants into the water, China leads the world in domestic executions, imprisons those who criticize their government, oddly, in some cases, harvests the organs of their prisoners, and internationally supports atrocious regimes like Syria and Iran – this is to say nothing of their police-state censorship and belligerent silencing of even the most trivial of protests and demonstrations. Although Harper has found a strong and reliable consumer of Canadian natural resources in China, he has become comparatively lenient on China since his politically motivated absence from the Olympics held in the country and his sympathy towards Tibet’s sovereignty when he met with the Dalai Lama in 2008. In dealing with China, Harper seems to not only have sold out Canadian values, but also his own intuitions against China he once held when America was a sufficient partner.

Harper's trip concluded with a gift of two pandas to stay in Canada for the next 10 years

It is difficult to ignore China’s poor conception of human rights, but it is equally difficult to flourish under a capitalist system by ignoring a market that is arguably rising to become the world’s next economic hegemon (America has by far the world’s largest economy, but China’s growth rate is significantly higher). International liberal theory, however, may offer a solution that can reconcile the two: Harper is cashing in on the Chinese economy no doubt, but in the long run, this need not be necessarily coupled with a disregard for human rights.

An essential point mentioned above was the interconnectivity of the globalized economic structure. If sanctions and trade barriers have indeed become the most effective weapons for determent in the 21st century, the cliché of keeping your enemies close may serve as a viable strategy in the reconciliation of associating with China’s economy and the poor human rights that come with it. China is notorious for its neo-mercantilist behaviour in ignoring human rights insofar as they do not interfere with its economy: domestic and international politics in the country’s agenda are subordinate to the advancement of its economy. However, if respect for internationally defined human rights was a necessary condition for advancing its economy, China’s agenda could dictate a reconsideration of what it deems ethically acceptable.

In order to solidify human rights as a precursor to a strong economy, China must become so entrenched in the globalized economy that its success becomes entirely contingent upon trade – only then can sanctions become a useful tool against the country; to the extent that other countries can collectively refuse to trade with China if it refuses to comply with UN standards of human rights. Exporting oil to China, then, could serve this strategy well: cash-in on China’s economy for now, and once it becomes hooked on Canadian oil, Western means for determent against human rights violations will have strengthened almost as much as China’s economy. Interconnectivity then, may be desirable for reasons beyond economics, and these reasons may be played out for the improvement of human rights in China.