As Ottawa negotiates a free trade agreement with China, critics warn the Liberals are rushing into a bad deal when it comes to Canada’s long-term economic growth and advise pursuing stronger trade ties with democratic countries that respect human rights.
With the United States moving toward protectionism, the Trudeau government is aiming to strengthen ties with the world’s second-largest economy through a free trade agreement. Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, has said the deal will bring jobs to middle class workers and stimulate the economy.
But Official Opposition leader Andrew Scheer says not only is the government avoiding bringing human rights to the table in negotiations, there are also concerns over how a free trade deal with China would benefit the economy in the long term. He says Canada would be wiser to bolster trade ties with countries that have similar values and institutions.
“The United Kingdom leaving the European Union now presents a wonderful opportunity for Canada—that’s some low-hanging fruit,” Scheer said in an interview.
“They have the same free market principles, they have the similar securities legislation, transparency, government oversight of the banking sector, monetary policy. It should be a natural fit—for heaven’s sake we have the same head of state.”
Scheer said the government should also pursue establishing deeper ties with other democratic nations in the Asia Pacific to encourage China to play by the same principles. He added it’s important to develop trade growth with China but in a way that puts the interests of Canadians first.
“I believe that a free trade deal that would allow unfettered access to the Canadian economy with a country that still has a huge percentage of economic activity being conducted by state-owned enterprises, which do not make decisions based on traditional free market processes, [would be bad for Canada]” he said.
“Added to that, the fact they have so far to go on everything from safe working conditions to environmental regulations, it would be a very unlevel playing field with Canadian manufacturers and Canadian workers.”
Scheer and other critics have said the Liberals began negotiations from a position of weakness, and their willingness to quickly approve last month’s sale to China of Norsat, a communications company that provides sensitive hi-tech information to NATO allies, shows they are trying to appease Beijing.
Conservative MP Peter Kent also raised concerns over the lack of denouncement from the government on China’s human rights record, which he says doesn’t show a sign of strength when it comes to negotiating a deal.
“The past 18 months we have seen the Liberals falling over themselves to please China, and they have been mute on human rights” he said, adding that Canada should place a higher priority on free trade with countries like Japan or the countries of the original Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been in limbo since the United States withdrew in January.
Kent noted that Chinese ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, said recently China will not tolerate any discussions on human rights in connection with the free trade agreement, although McCallum has said labour laws and human rights would be on the negotiating table.
The Epoch Times sought comment from McCallum’s office regarding how human rights would be addressed but no statement was given by press time.
However, the Ministry of International Trade responded by email saying it would bring up human rights at every turn during negotiations.
“This government never shies away from raising the issues, including human rights, and will continue to do so at every opportunity. The promotion of human rights and a rules-based approach to engagement are integral to our foreign policy and a high priority in our relationship with China,” the email reads.
Clive Ansley, an expert in Chinese law, says Western democracies often end up appeasing China when it comes to human rights and negotiating deals.
“No doubt there will probably be some lip service given by [the Chinese regime], but it’s not very meaningful. China is a country that signs international conventions and treaties and then simply ignores them altogether,” Ansley said.
“China is a country that ignores its own laws, it ignores its own constitution.”
Ansley, who spent 14 years working in China as a law expert and speaks fluent Mandarin, added every interaction between western liberal democracies and China should always put human rights at the forefront, considering China’s abysmal track record on rights.
Ansley said Canada has had a poor track record in standing up for human rights under both the Liberal and Conservative governments and said they both bend toward Chinese demands. He cited the Chinese takeover of oilsands giant Nexxen under the Harper Government.
He agrees with Scheer and Kent that a free trade agreement with China could hurt workers in Canada, noting that the Chinese have attempted in the past to bring in their own labour to work in mines in B.C. and in Alberta’s oilsands.
Kent fears a similar issue could come with China having unfettered access under a free trade deal, such as the one signed last year with Australia.
According to the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement gave Chinese enterprises the right to bring in an unlimited number of workers on major projects.
“At this point in time I don’t see how a free trade deal puts Canada’s interests first,” Scheer said. “I think we can enhance our trade and look for new opportunities to make our trading relationship with China more dynamic, but doing it within the current framework is better for the Canadian economy.”
Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism covering the Stanley Cup Riot in 2011.