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‘It is not only about economics’: Biden’s friendly visit doesn’t change the protectionist status quo

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A lot can change in seven years. Joe Biden’s sleepover in Ottawa last week was the first state visit by a sitting U.S. president since June 2016, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted Barack Obama during the first year of his premiership.

Just a few months after Obama’s visit, Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. election. Trump’s protectionist policies, including tariffs and ending America’s involvement in international trade treaties, upended a decades-long consensus on international free trade. 

Many Canadians breathed a sigh of relief when Trump failed to win re-election in 2020, and was replaced by Biden. On matters of international trade, however, Canada and the U.S. have not returned to the status quo of 2016.

Trevor Tombe, a professor of economics at the University of Calgary and Hub contributor, says that since Trump became president, the U.S. has been less willing to engage with international institutions and trade, both courses of action that are popular with the U.S. public. A Gallup poll earlier this month suggested a record-low 65 percent of Americans want the U.S. holding a leading or major role in world affairs.

“It’s potentially not a partisan issue or a personality-driven issue, but something that’s an important component of U.S. public sentiment, in terms of how they view their place in the world, or the relative merits of international trade agreements,” says Tombe. “I wouldn’t put any kind of disproportionate burden on Biden’s shoulders in terms of changing the economic relationship between Canada and the U.S., not at all.”

Biden has not undone the protectionism that began in the Trump era. With a pandemic in early 2020, and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years later, the global economy was further rocked by severely disrupted supply chains and a world re-polarized between democracies and authoritarian regimes like Russia and China. 

Biden also killed the Keystone XL pipeline and introduced hundreds of billions in tax credits and subsidies on green projects to achieve “Net Zero” carbon emissions. 

Canada itself has engaged in its own form of incentivizing green projects, with the federal and Ontario provincial governments spending a yet-undisclosed amount of money this year to ensure Volkswagen builds its electric vehicle battery plant in St. Thomas, Ontario. Estimates of the total cost range as high as $10 billion CAD, and the project has been received with a mixture of praise and skepticism surrounding the cost and benefits of the plant. 

Candice Chow, a professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, says the electric vehicle industry would have been an important topic during Biden’s visit. 

“As the U.S. is seeking to bring jobs back, Canada needs to ensure with its vast natural resources, we do not become a country of commodity export, but secure our ability to take a leadership position in innovation and in green technology,” says Chow. 

With the electric vehicle industry growing and requiring new spaces and capabilities, Chow says it’s natural to reshore the industry within Canada. 

“Canada has the competitive advantage in mining for cobalt and has lithium deposits, completing a crucial aspect of (the) EV auto supply chain,” says Chow. “Our weather creates opportunities for us to build and develop better battery range. We have a healthy auto sector cluster with part suppliers, especially in Ontario, and multiple multinational enterprise auto brands already have facilities in various parts of the province (and) country.” 

Chow says there are many reasons why certain industries are reshoring, including economic and political ones. 

“We in general have allowed ourselves to become very heavily dependent on inexpensive Chinese manufactured goods,” says Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto. “Now that we are seeing the conflict in Ukraine, now that we have seen the aggressiveness of China in the South China Sea, we will begin to realize that it is not only about economics, that politics are always a factor.” 

Braun says that whether or not reshoring and the related trend of friendshoring (the reorienting of trade within democratic countries instead of dictatorships) are here to stay or are merely an interlude depends on what lessons are learned. 

“This notion of free trade was not one that we really understood well, and we have been paying a very high cost for it,” says Braun. “We are finding that the Chinese would supply cheap goods, but then we became very dependent on them, and they will conduct industrial espionage and political interference.” 

‘Nobody in the Chinese Canadian diaspora was surprised’: Diaspora communities balance fears of foreign meddling with political organizing

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As revelations continue to surface about interference by the Chinese government in recent Canadian elections, Canada’s diaspora communities say they’ve been warning about this issue for years.

They also insist that their communities have every right to organize politically and influence policy at every level of government and hope the recent revelations don’t cast a pall over these efforts.

Many members of the Chinese community said they had been warning government and security officials about foreign political interference from the Chinese government for years. 

“I can say with confidence that nobody in the Chinese Canadian diaspora was surprised at all when Global News first broke the story,” says Karen Woods, a co-founder of the Canadian Chinese Political Affairs Committee, a Toronto-based non-profit. 

Workers at the Chinese consulate in Toronto helped mobilize Chinese-Canadian voters to vote for Liberal candidate Han Dong in the riding of Don Valley North, according to recent reporting by Global News. Also reported were similar actions on behalf of the Chinese government in B.C. that contributed to the defeats of Conservative incumbents Alice Wong and Kenny Chiu in their Richmond ridings.

A string of stories by Global News and the Globe & Mail paint a picture of an intricate interference network set up by Chinese government actors to influence the 2019 and 2021 federal elections to ensure a Liberal victory. 

Calgary-based political scientist and Hub contributor Rahim Mohamed believes diaspora politics are organized to obtain greater cultural recognition within a country, or to influence a country’s foreign policy towards the “homeland,” which he notes is the right of any Canadian. 

“It may be an unseemly sort of politics to some, but it generally falls within the bounds of legitimate democratic activity,” says Mohamed. “If the recent intelligence leaks are to be believed, this is a clear-cut case of a hostile foreign power meddling in our democratic process, which is a totally different ball game.” 

Nonetheless, Mohamed believes diaspora politics can open the door to foreign interference in democratic elections.

“New Canadians have democratic rights just like all other Canadians. If they want to mobilize organically to influence public policy, I take no issue with that,” says Mohamed. “The challenge for policymakers will be dealing with the opportunities these diaspora networks give interloping foreign powers to meddle in our democratic processes.” 

With over 300,000 Cantonese speakers, 500,000 Mandarin speakers, and families that arrived last year or five generations ago, Woods says the Chinese-Canadian community is far too diverse to ever be fully under the sway of the Chinese government. 

“The Chinese-Canadian diaspora consists of people who have settled in Canada for more than five generations or people like me, who came to Canada at 12,” says Woods, who says most Chinese Canadians do not like the Chinese government. “We are no different than your everyday Canadian…we certainly are part of Team Canada.” 

Within the Chinese-Canadian community, Woods says some fault lines have developed between those whose families have lived in Canada for decades and new arrivals, as well as those born in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Mainland, or outside China. 

“Based on these factors, your attitude toward Beijing and the CCP is going to be very different. And that is why you now have HK, Taiwanese voters that will never vote for a mainland candidate in elections,” says Woods. 

However, Woods says the Chinese government’s influence has helped silence divergent points of view on Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement and the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in western China. 

Hong Kong-born Canadians and residents, and pro-democracy activists more generally, are often confronted by supporters of the Chinese government when conducting demonstrations in cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

At the height of the 2019 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, crowds of pro-democracy and pro-Chinese government demonstrators at a busy Vancouver intersection had to be physically separated by the police

Kash Heed, a city councillor in Richmond, where over half of the population is of Chinese descent, says that diaspora communities have attempted to influence Canada’s relations with their ancestral homelands for hundreds of years, and this is present in every democracy. He says there is a marked distinction between members of a diaspora community attempting to influence Canadian politics and a foreign government directly interfering in Canadian elections. 

“If I can directly relate it to a foreign government, I don’t have a strong indication that they’re actively involved in it (electoral interference),” says Heed. “If I could relate it to foreigners that have come to Canada (and) that have settled in Canada, trying to influence which way we go, yes absolutely,” says Heed. 

When the Chinese government does target the diaspora in Canada, Woods says it is mostly the Mandarin-speaking community from Mainland China. 

“A large percentage of the Chinese Mainland diaspora certainly still supports Beijing, but I would also like to add that is not necessarily an ideologically driven affinity to the CCP,” says Woods, who notes there are many economic interests at play with China being Canada’s second-largest trading partner. “That adds a lot of weight.”  

Mohamed says one example of diaspora politics was the political shift of the Chinese-Australian community in the country’s 2022 federal election. 

Pointing out that Australian electoral districts with the largest Chinese-Australian populations swung heavily towards the Labor Party, Mohamed says it was reported as a response to the Liberal-National government’s deteriorating relationship with China. 

Labor, which ultimately unseated the Liberal-National government, has pursued a more moderate relationship with Beijing but has not reneged on regional security agreements aimed at countering China’s geopolitical ambitions in the Pacific region.