Once a decade or two Canada gets to play a much bigger role on the global stage than our scale would normally merit. At the creation of the UN, NATO, and peacekeeping, on Suez and killing apartheid, Canadians played essential bridge-building roles between the great powers. We may have arrived at a new such moment.
The really dangerous flash point of the Trump presidency is not corruption or even breeching constitutional limits on presidential power. Those are abuses American voters will punish — as this month’s midterm elections demonstrated. Nor is his white nationalist abuse fired at “s- — — hole” Africans and Mexican “rapists” serious. Those travesties don’t threaten the future of the world.
Trump’s war on China does.
Henry Kissinger sagely observed that this century’s statesmen needed to do a better job of welcoming a “dissatisfied rising power” to the international community of nations than did their forebears. Or, and he gloomily framed it, “this century is doomed to be as tragically bloody for much of humanity as was the last.” He was in Beijing last week trying to rebuild the China/U.S. relationship, in defiance of Trump’s efforts to rip it apart. He did not make much progress.
James Mattis, a soldier-statesman in the U.S. tradition, has tried valiantly, mostly offstage, to keep the U.S./China security dialogue alive. He is not winning either. American business leaders with deep credibility in China, like Henry Paulson and John Thornton, have thrown their hard-earned credibility into the struggle for a return to sanity, again, without evident impact yet.
Trump’s tantrums and tweets are not seen as a joke, but as genuine threats in China. This is how unwanted, unplanned wars start.
Apart from a few Canadian tabloid journalists and their small claque of aging sources in the “formers” community — all old China hands from another century — most Canadians understand that stable solid economic ties with China are essential to peace and to our future prosperity. Even the smallest risk of a military collision in the Pacific is unthinkable.
Canada may be able to mark a path forward based on dialogue and a deep understanding of China’s needs and ambitions. This month we celebrated 40 years of building that foundation — following the decision by Deng, the Chinese father of reform, to open China to the world — with a bevy of self-congratulatory events featuring ministers, premiers, and business leaders in a series of events in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere.
In private, however, the sunny optimism shifts to gloom. Canadians made it clear that no one knows better than we do how to manage Americans — especially when they are going a little squirrelly. With mounting dread, the Chinese signal: “How can you help us with this buffoon?”
The question is framed as, “What is Canada’s possible contribution to reversing the rapidly deteriorating slide in relations?” Our teams respond that if we can do a sensible deal together, it will enrage Trump, and give succour to those fighting for a return to sanity.
We did not get to that win, so far. Half a deal is no deal, and trade negotiations are tiresomely complex and boring. Even well-informed leaks are not worth listening to. But body language is always a reliable tell. Last December, during Trudeau’s shambolic visit, it was painful to watch officials and ministers’ thin-lipped smiles and claims of “great progress.”
Last week none could conceal the change in mood, as they emerged from each session looking like kids who shared a delightful secret. China signalled obliquely in the attention paid to these visits in their media, its tone, and in flattering commentary about the Canada/China relationship that the weather has indeed cleared.
If Canada is able to make new, even narrow and limited trade agreements in key sectors like finance and agriculture, it will help block Trump, encourage the world, and possibly begin to thaw the deep chill slowly paralyzing China’s relations with the West.
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group. He helps lead Earnscliffe Strategy Group practice and visits China regularly. Sears was also an NDP strategist for 20 years. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears