Steve, maybe you SHOULD have gone to Beijing’s party

Well, the Olympics are shaping up to be A-OK for Canadian athletes, but something tells me they aren’t quite shaping up quite as well for Canada in China.  This afternoon, the Globe and Mail reported here that former Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, chastised current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, for not attending the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Mr. Chrétien, speaking at a news conference after addressing the Canadian Bar Association in Quebec City, said he would definitely have gone to Beijing had he still been prime minister.

He said Mr. Harper should have been at the celebration given China’s economic and demographic clout and the mentality of its leaders.

Now Prime Minister Harper might believe he has some legitimate bones to pick with the Chinese government, but at the same time, this attitude is starting to have some real effects on Canada’s ability to adapt to a multipolar future – regardless of some of the moral and ethical questions that many Canadians hold strong opinions on.

Take, for example, the case of the China National Petroleum Company’s planned investment in Enbridge’s Gateway pipeline from Edmonton to  the Pacific Coast.  Oilweek magazine described this week how Canada’s relationship with China is causing many missed opportunities.

China cannot secure Canadian oil supplies as long as the only export pipelines from Alberta lead into the United States. Especially after the two countries announced in 2005 an agreement on energy cooperation, it was therefore astonishing when CNPC announced last year that it had pulled out of an agreement to take a 50 per cent stake in the proposed Enbridge-operated Gateway Pipeline.

Obsessed with diversifying its oil sources and avoiding dependence on a single supplier, Beijing sees Canada as a country in the U.S. sphere of influence, as a country where oil could be held hostage to political concerns. It has little enthusiasm for multi-billion-dollar oil deals in a country whose relations with China have been soured by human-rights disputes. Think Tibet.

“China doesn´t want to make a multi-billion-dollar commitment to a country where the political contacts are constrained,” says Jiang Wenran, associate professor and acting director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

Professor Jiang adds that the Middle Kingdom worries about Canada´s business practices. Canadians can´t explain how they will triple production from the oilsands given environmental constraints. The costs of environmental protection seem out of control. Labour costs are reaching the moon.

Canadian companies don’t like to invest in politically unstable areas of the world – well, Chinese companies don’t like to invest in politically unstable places either – but I guess politically unstable is all in how you look at it.  China wants to invest in a place where operations will continue as agreed, not on the whim of environmental organizations, election-seeking politicians or other superpower regimes (such as, in Canada’s case, the USA).  And Canada doesn’t meet these criteria.  As a result, Canada now has to foot the bill for all this infrastructure (which Enbridge is reportedly continuing with), and simply hope that there will be buyers.

It seems to me that Chinese people and by extension companies and China itself view their international relationships based on trust gained not through ability to merely fulfill contracts, but in fact, ability to know and understand the other party, help out when help is needed, to find mutual benefit (even if the financial profits are distributed unevenly), and to overlook some of the other party’s shortfalls.  After all, nobody’s perfect.

Focusing on China’s domestic problems (which I won’t talk directly about here for fear of being even more blocked), as a reason to ignore the broader Canada-China relationship will severely limit Canada’s ability to cope with a multipolar global political system.  Canada is indeed limited by it’s physical closeness to the U.S., but needs to find a way to be independent, to be Canadian, and to build new, non-European style international relationships with rising developing countries.  There may be a lot to learn from Canada’s colonial and resource-rich sister, Australia, which has been highly successful in courting Asia-Pacific markets.

Indeed, ignoring the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games for ANY reason was not the right way to start.

Now if only there were a single political leader in Canada with the skill or finesse to deal with this problem…

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