In The Diplomat, Anthony V. Rinna looks at Canada’s rather history of diplomatic and cultural exchanges with China:
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has noticeably changed his stance toward China. Previously, the Conservative prime minister maintained a hard line against the PRC based on what he perceived as a poor human rights record. That position has softened over recent years. This seems to be part of a broader strategy aimed at transforming Canada, traditionally Atlanticist in its political leanings, into a leading actor in the Asia-Pacific. Specifically there is ample opportunity for Canada and China to enter into a symbiotic energy relationship. China of course desperately needs energy, and wants a diverse base of suppliers. Canada, in turn, is a major energy producer and exporter and would find a very willing customer in China.
Among the Western democracies, Canada has something of a history as a catalyst vis-à-vis the West’s relations with China. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was the first Western leader to open up to China, starting in 1970 when Canada officially recognized the government in Beijing as the legitimate government of the land (and the stage had been set for this by Trudeau’s predecessor, John Diefenbaker). Although Hugh Stevens of TransPacific Connections attributes Canada’s renewed interest in strengthening ties with China in part to following the lead of the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, Canada has the potential to again be a leader and innovator in its own right. Canada’s own unthreatening position can only help.
While Canada’s relationship with China is largely based on trade and investment, military relations between Canada and China continue to develop apace, well beyond the conventional placement of military attachés at each country’s respective embassies in Beijing and Ottawa. In March 2012, then-Canadian Chief of Staff General Walter Natyncyk participated in a high-level visit to China and met with top brass from the People’s Liberation Army. In August 2013, Robert Nicholson, who had become Canada’s Minister of Defence only a month earlier, held talks with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan on deepening Sino-Canadian military cooperation.
Canada has used its position to ease Asia-Pacific tensions in the past, for instance during the South China Sea Dialogues in the mid-1990s. James Manicom of the Centre for International Governance Innovation argues that the Track II-style of Canadian involvement in the 1990s may no longer be appropriate or effective given the rise in regional tensions. Nevertheless, as Canada’s military engagement with China increases, this still leaves the possibility of Canada playing a role in soothing regional tensions on an official level.
Ottawa has positive relations with the other states with territorial interests and disputes in the South China Sea. For instance, 49 percent of Indonesians say they have a positive view of Canada (and only 16 percent express a negative view). In line with its progressive stance toward China in the 1970s, Canada also recognized Vietnam diplomatically toward the end of the U.S.-led Vietnam War (whereas the U.S. only normalized relations with that country late in the administration of President Bill Clinton). Thus, Canada may be in a position to assist not only as a third node in a Canada-China-U.S. strategic triangle, but also to use its own diplomatic clout hand-in-hand with its growing military ties to China to work between China, the U.S. and U.S. partners in the region, many of whom have called for American assistance in counterbalancing China.