Canada must move away from ‘diplomacy on autopilot’ with China: Former ambassador

'It'll be difficult for Canada because we haven't put much thought into our foreign policy for a long time'

David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China, is seen before testifying on Parliament Hill on Nov. 26, 2009. Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press.

Canada needs to stop conducting “diplomacy on autopilot” with China if it wants to join a burgeoning international effort to check the country’s ambitions, argued David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China.

The current policy of “comprehensive engagement” assumes that “any idea that China has is, by definition, a good idea,” said Mulroney, in a Q&A session Wednesday evening with Sean Speer, The Hub’s editor-at-large. The Hub Exchange was the first in a series of quarterly events that will provide access to interesting personalities and perspectives on issues of national interest.


Mulroney said there are many areas where it is still essential for Canada to partner with China, including the environment, food safety, global health, and the economy. But on other issues, and in multilateral engagement on the whole, it will be important that Canada is more selective about its diplomatic efforts.

That will be a major shift for Canadian politicians and diplomats, he said.

“It will require much more thought, it will require much more management of foreign policy. That will be difficult for everybody,” said Mulroney. “It’ll be particularly difficult for Canada because we haven’t put much thought into our foreign policy for a long time, and we’re going to pay a price in terms of the learning curve that we have to go up.”

Although it would be a major shift in Canadian diplomacy, it could be the right time to make the change. It is a unique moment, as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and examines the role of Chinese officials who spent weeks downplaying the virus and blocking information from reaching health authorities.

Are Canadians ready to take a new, more skeptical, look at China?

“I’m going to give you a resounding yes and no,” said Mulroney. “Canadians, and this is shown in the polling, get it, and are increasingly concerned. And this isn’t belligerent. They’re not anti-China, but they’re aware that China is changing.”

Seventy-five percent of Canadians are uneasy with the prospect of China becoming the next global superpower, according to a survey conducted by Public Square and Maru/Blue and provided exclusively to The Hub in April.

Mulroney said it’s a different story among Canadian elites, though, and he was disturbed by calls from former diplomats and politicians to release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and end her extradition process in Canada. Two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were detained in China shortly after Meng was detained in Vancouver in 2018.

“What it suggested was something of a fatigue, a moral fatigue. We could do the right thing but it’s just too darn hard,” said Mulroney.

Mulroney said the West’s complacency about China has been growing since the ’90s, when the country experienced explosive economic growth and made overtures about joining the rules-based international order.

When China was negotiating to join the World Trade Organization in 1999, U.S. officials, and most of the Western world, believed that economic growth would be accompanied by democratic reforms. In reality, while China’s economic growth has exceeded expectations, it has not been accompanied by political reform.

Mulroney said the recent efforts by the U.S. and the U.K. to address the growing threat of China could be the sign a major shift in the geopolitical world.

“What we’ll be seeing in the next few years, I think, is a process of realignment,” said Mulroney. “A return, by the United States, to the process of alliance-building and formation. It had lost interest in this — and this is something that predates Donald Trump. I think as Canadians we could feel that American interest in alliances, including the bilateral alliance, was waning.”

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