Giving up on changing China

by Terence MacNamee

Canadian newspapers have been reporting on a publication “The Future of Canada’s Relationship with China” by academics Wendy Dobson and Paul Evans, the aim of which is “to stimulate constructive public discussion of a forward-looking framework for consideration by the new government in Ottawa”.

The authors say that the approach taken by the previous government “focuses narrowly on our economic interests in a complex and multidimensional Asian region in which growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China is shaping the future”. They add, ominously, that “growing strategic rivalry is making Asia’s middle powers increasingly concerned that they will have to pick sides between the two global powers”. Canada, as a middle power, they say, could somehow be involved. How this would happen is left vague. All they can think of is that China’s continued growth “could open significant new business opportunities”, which is the only way most Western decision-makers see China.

Speaking to Vancouver Sun journalist Chuck Chiang and others, co-author Evans likened past initiatives from Ottawa, to “throwing rocks at a wall.” He said Canada needs to change its approach to dealing with China — “as it is, not as what we want them to be”.

“Canada’s past engagement with China was ultimately largely about changing China,” he said. “I think that narrative, as appealing as it is, no longer applies. Expectations that China would eventually become more like the United States and Canada are not happening. Canada needs to look at a new initiative in dealing with China without making ‘changing China’ a priority.”

This is interesting, and seems to go beyond the blah-blah formulations in which bureaucratic-academic discourse on such matters is habitually couched. He seems to be conceding that the Western powers are not pulling the strings within Asia in any real sense. Yet people should have realized this once and for all with Japan in the 1980s. Japan gave the example of a country that adopted Western innovations but adapted them to its own culture. Japan became modern in its own way and on its own terms. China is now doing the same. Convergence theories, anyone?