Canada caught between two giants

Sometimes, taking the middle road is the worst option.

“Someone who takes the middle-of-the-road approach ends up being hit by traffic going in both directions.”

I never forgot this quote from a college friend. It applies to Canada today.

The Canadian government did a favor for the U.S. government when it arrested Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, in December 2018, at the Trump administration’s request. China responded by arresting two Canadian nationals, including former diplomat Michael Kovig.

China was trying to bully the Canadians to release Meng. When that didn’t work, Xi Jinping upped his game by cutting back Canadian access to the Chinese market for export of soybeans, canola oil, peas, and pork. This tit-for-tat approach has hurt the Canadian economy. By February 2019, exports to China had declined by 25 percent.

Canada is now caught between two major economic powers, China and the U.S., and has found itself being pummeled by both sides (Shapiro, Jacob L., “Canada: A Casualty of ‘America First’” May 9, 2019).

China’s moves have been passive-aggressive to give them “plausible deniability.” As an example, the Chinese government revoked the export permits of two Canadian pork suppliers over a “labeling problem.” In February, China banned the importation of Canadian canola oil because of “pest problems.” In April, the government filed a quality complaint against a third Canadian canola oil exporter. Inspections and hold ups have increased beyond the norm for food products.

Canadian provincial governments have tried to act as if there is really no problem at all, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense given that the Chinese are currently suffering from an African swine fever epidemic where they have had to slaughter more than a million pigs. The Chinese need imported pork to compensate.

The Canadians have seen their exports cut off, forcing them to sell to Bangladesh and Pakistan at steep discounts.

There is nothing Canadians can do about it, so the government reached out to the Trump administration for help. They wanted the U.S. government to pressure China for them. The U.S. is Canada’s biggest trading partner, but no help has been forthcoming. The U.S. government made a few supportive comments, but no attempt has been made to come to Canada’s aid. The approach is “America first,” with no help to a long-time ally.

Shapiro’s observation was: “The U.S. is pursuing negotiations with China to secure better trade terms for American companies – not for Canadian ones, even though China’s economic expansion in recent decades has posed similar problems for both countries.”

American practice for decades was to not put “America first.” Instead, by helping other nations, the U.S. developed close relationships and bonds of friendship and cooperation. The adage, “What you give to others you give to yourself” worked well in the past. The source of our past power has been in our positive relationships with other nations. China has few friends, except dysfunctional North Korea.

Canada is too closely tied to us economically, politically and militarily to be able to break off relations, but by being as self-centered as we have been under the current administration there is going to come a time when Canada and our other allies are not going to be as quick to aid us when we need their help. When we give others criticism, arrogance and disregard, we should expect that behavior to be returned to us.

In the world in which you and I live, having close trusting relationships with those around us makes our lives more harmonious and less stressful. What is true for us as individuals is also, to a great extent, true for relationships between nations.

Canada tried to be a friend and ally to the United States by arresting the Huawei CFO. At the same time, it hoped to maintain good relations with China. It tried to take a middle-of-the-road approach. It is now being hit by traffic going in both directions. Next time – and there will be a next time – they may not be willing to be so cooperative with their neighbor to the south.

Trust has been corroded. Once lost, trust is very difficult to regain.

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