Canada–China relations

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Canada–China relations
Map indicating locations of Canada and People's Republic of China


Diplomatic mission
Canadian Embassy, BeijingChinese Embassy, Ottawa, Ontario
Vacant [1]
New Ambassador To Be Announced
Ambassador Lu Shaye
Embassy of Canada in China

Canada–China relations, or Sino-Canadian relations officially dates back to 1942, when Canada sent an ambassador to China. Before then, Canada had been represented by the British ambassador. The Communist victory (1949) in the Chinese Civil War caused a break in relations that lasted until 1970, when Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau became one of the first Western leaders to recognize the People's Republic of China. Canada is home to a large Chinese diaspora, which affects diplomatic and other dimensions.

China was Canada's largest trading partner in Asia for some years, including 2017; it was Canada's top export market and it was Canada's top import supplier in Asia.[2] On the other hand, Canada had a significant trade imbalance, importing CAD$44.235 billion more from China than the value of its exports to that country in 2016, for example.[3]

According to the Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey of Pew research centre, 48% of Canadians had a favourable view on China, while 40% had a negative view.[4] A major BBC World Service poll however (conducted not much earlier, from October 2005 to January 2006), found that only 36% of Canadians viewed China's world influence positively, down from 49% in 2004.[5] An October 2017 survey indicated that close to 70% of Canadians supported a free trade agreement with China, in spite of concerns about the latter's growing world power[6] and China's record on human rights.[7] Some negative effect on trade between was likely however, subsequent to increased tension between the two countries in December 2018 after arrests in both Canada and China.[8]



As part of the British empire, and later Commonwealth, Canada did not establish a foreign ministry (External Affairs) until 1909 and developed an independent foreign policy and established embassies overseas only in the 1940s. In 1942, Canada posted its first ambassador in the Chinese wartime Nationalist capital of Chongqing. The embassy was moved to Nanjing in 1946.

Canada faced a dilemma following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. On many issues, Canada followed the lead of British and the US, but the two governments followed different policies on China. The United Kingdom, under the control of a Socialist government, extended diplomatic recognition to the Communist Chinese, while the United States refused to recognize the Communist government. After the Liberal victory in the Canadian federal election of 1949 and more discussion, Canada followed the British approach. The Canadian embassy in Nanjing was kept open, and Canada posted a chargé d'affaires. By June 23, 1950, the Canadian Department of External Affairs had prepared instructions for the chargé to open negotiations with the Chinese government for an exchange of ambassadors.[9]

However, the Korean War began two days later, on June 25, 1950. With Canadian troops fighting with the United Nations forces, opposing Chinese troops, the continuation of diplomatic relations became untenable. After Canada voted in favour of a UN Resolution that branded China an aggressor, the Chinese government asked the Canadian chargé to leave. The Canadian embassy in Nanjing was closed on February 26, 1951. Thereafter, Canada maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, whose government had evacuated to Taiwan after losing to the Communists. However, Canada did not send an ambassador to the Nationalist Chinese capital of Taipei. Instead, relations were maintained through the Nationalist Chinese ambassador in Ottawa.[9]

Harper era[edit]

In 2006, following elections, Stephen Harper became Prime Minister of Canada, and implemented a more activist foreign policy, emphasising ties with democracies, and expressing criticism of non-democratic regimes, such as the case of China. Harper stated his belief in Canadian values such as human rights should not be trumped by the "almighty dollar".[citation needed] For example, the Harper government awarded an honorary Canadian citizenship to the Dalai Lama, and criticizing China's human rights record, accusing it of commercial espionage. Harper also delayed a planned meeting between the foreign ministers, and increased the level of Canadian involvement in Taiwan, further displeasing Beijing.[citation needed] At the APEC Summit in November 2006, China initially appeared to back out of formal meeting between Harper and President Hu, but Hu instead opted for a brief informal meeting with the Canadian PM. Harper notably did not attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Gerard Kennedy meeting Dalai Lama at Tibetan Centre in Toronto, 2010

In 2005 Charles Burton, an associate professor at Brock University wrote a report and conducted media interviews on Canada's policy towards China.[10] Burton's report, commissioned by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, was entitled Assessment of the Canada-China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue[11] and released in an unclassified public version in April, 2006. As revealed by U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, the "Burton Report" considerably affected Western policy approaches to engagement with China on human rights[12] and China's response.[13]

The global recession that began at the end of 2008 and the economic effect on Canada led the Harper government to reduce its criticism of China in order to repair relations with China, whose economic status remained robust. A number of high level official visits took place in this period. Trade Minister Stockwell Day, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, and Transportation Minister John Baird visited China in 2009. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made reciprocal trip to Canada in June. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty led a high-profile delegation to China to enhance economic and financial ties. Prime Minister Harper visited China for the first time from December 2–6, 2009, visiting Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Before a bilateral meeting with Harper in Beijing, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao suggested that too long a time had elapsed without a visit to China by a Canadian Prime Minister. After the meetings, Hu Jintao, Wen and Harper agreed to build stronger relations, particularly in the economic sphere. Chinese President Hu Jintao paid an official state visit to Canada from June 23 to 27, 2010, ahead of the G20 summit in Toronto.[14] Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean travelled to China from June 30 to July 5, 2010 on a "friendship visit", accepting an invitation from China to attend Canada's national day at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. She also visited Guangdong, Sichuan and Beijing.[15][16][17][18] Then Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also paid a working visit to Beijing and Shanghai from July 3 to 8, 2010.[19]

Goddess of Democracy, University of British Columbia

During Prime Minister Harper's February 2012 visit to China, some commentators in the Canadian media reported that the Chinese government was much more welcoming than in 2009. Harper met with both President Hu and Premier Wen, and signed a number of economic agreements including a uranium export treaty,[20] and a foreign investment treaty, which was linked by the media to (further) potential Chinese investment in the Athabasca oil sands, and which had been negotiated for eighteen years. Chinese officials suggested that the next logical step would be a free trade agreement, which Canadian officials promised to study.[21]

Justin Trudeau era[edit]

Justin Trudeau became the Prime Minister of Canada by elections, and the relationship between China and Canada had been improved. Trudeau paid an official visit to China from August 30 to September 7, 2016, days before the G20 meeting in Hangzhou. However, such visit failed to get a balanced relationship with China.[22]

David Johnston, the Governor General of Canada, paid an official visit to China from July 10 to July 14, 2017. The two countries pledged to enhance cooperation on education, research, innovation, culture, diversity, agriculture and tourism.[23] In December 2017, the two countries jointly proclaimed 2018 the Canada China Year of Tourism, to encourage visits to/from both countries.[24]

In response to the death of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of organ failure while in government custody, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement: "I offer my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr Liu and to his many supporters around the world ... We continue to call for the release of all political prisoners."[25] Freeland also raised the issue of human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority in a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.[26]

Strained relationship[edit]

On 1 December 2018 the chief financial officer of Huawei's deputy chair and CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver at an extradition request by U.S. authorities on suspicion of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. Trudeau said that the federal government was aware of the intended arrest but had no involvement in the process while the PRC government protested the arrest made by Canadian authorities.[27][28][29] The arrest had ramifications for the bilateral ties of the two countries.[30][31][32]

On 10 December 2018, former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was detained by the Beijing Bureau of Chinese State Security. Then the senior adviser in Hong Kong for the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank based in Brussels, Kovrig had worked for the diplomatic service in Beijing and Hong Kong until 2016. As of 12 December, the Chinese government had released few specifics as to the reason for the detention, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said the International Crisis Group was not registered in China and hence, "once its staff become engaged in activities in China, it has already violated the law". Lu also reaffirmed his country's demand that the "Canadian side should immediately release the detained Ms. Meng Wanzhou and to protect her legitimate rights and interests".[33][34][35][36]

The comments made by Lu convinced some that Kovrig's detention was in retaliation for Canada's holding of Meng Wanzhou based on a U.S. arrest warrant. (On 9 December, China had warned Canada's ambassador John McCallum of severe consequences unless Meng was released.)[37] Dr. John Higginbotham, of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, made this comment about Kovrig's arrest: "The idea that there is retaliation against a Canadian citizen – unwarranted retaliation – will make it even more difficult for the Canadian government to squirm its way out of this situation that the United States has presented us with".[38] Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada's ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, told The Canadian Press, that "the Chinese government wanted to send us a message ... [it is] trying to put as much pressure as possible on the Canadian government to force us to return Ms. Meng to China". Trudeau said that the government is treating the situation "very seriously", had been in touch with diplomats from China, and was providing consular assistance to Kovrig.[39] In mid December, the Canadian ambassador met with Kovrig and with Michael Spavor but provided no additional details because of the provisions of the Privacy Act. Trudeau called the detention of the two Canadians "not acceptable" and planned to work with Chinese authorities to make that clear to them.[40][41]

On 12 December 2018, the Communist Party-run newspaper Global Times had warned that "if Canada extradites Meng to the U.S., China's revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian". [42] By that time, another Canadian living in China, Michael Spavor, was detained, also on suspicion of "endangering national security", according to China's Foreign Ministry. Spavor is the founder of Paektu Cultural Exchange,[43] which promotes travel to North Korea.[44] David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said, "It would be nice if publicly and also behind the scenes if countries like the United States, the U.K., Australia and France would put in a word on our behalf and let the Chinese know how damaging this is to their reputation and to the notion that China is a safe place to work and pursue a career."[45] On 18 December 2018, a third Canadian was detained but the authorities said it was unrelated to the previous arrests.[46]

The retaliatory moves by China confirmed that the previously smooth working relationship between the countries had broken down. While Canada was merely responding to an arrest warrant issued by a court in New York state, China had not taken steps against Americans because it "wants to improve its relations with the U.S.", a much larger trading partner, according to Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.[42] Former ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques concurred: "they know they cannot kick them [the U.S.] so they turned around and kicked us".[8] The situation was complicated by Donald Trump's suggestion that he might allow Meng to be released as part of the negotiation for improved trade relations with China, leaving Canada in an awkward position.[47] In response, Chrystia Freeland, Canada's foreign affairs minister, made this statement on 14 December: "Canada understands the rule of law and extradition ought not ever to be politicized or used as tools to resolve other issues."[48]

Canada's ambassador to China John McCallum (2017–2019)

Several political analysts agreed that Canada was caught in the middle,[49] between China and the U.S. Christopher Sands of the School of Advanced International Studies in D.C., said that "in normal times, the U.S. sends a signal, usually discreetly, to allies to cut it out and play nice". That had not happened as of 14 December 2018, leading historian Robert Bothwell to comment, "We've never been this alone. We don't have any serious allies. And I think that's another factor in what the Chinese are doing. ... Our means of retaliation are very few. China is a hostile power."[50] In truth, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supported Canada's position in a U.S.–Canada press conference on 14 December and said he would work to ensure the release of the two Canadians who were then in "unlawful detention". News reports did not indicate whether he had made such a statement to the government of China.[51][52]

On the same day, Trudeau commented that "the escalating trade war between them [China and the U.S.] is going to have all sorts of unintended consequences on Canada, potentially on the entire global economy. We're very worried about that".[40] On 21 December 2018, Freeland told the news media that she had advised the Chinese ambassador that Canada was requesting the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the UK believes that Canada is conducting "a fair and transparent legal proceeding" of Meng. "I am deeply concerned by suggestions of a political motivation for the detention of two Canadian citizens by the Chinese government", Hunt said.[53]

On 14 January 2019, Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg had his 15-year drug smuggling prison sentence escalated to a death sentence, resulting in Canada issuing a travel warning on "the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws".[54] China in turn issued its own travel advisory, citing "arbitrary detention" at request of a "third-party country".[55]

Canada's ambassador to China John McCallum said that "From Canada's point of view, if (the U.S.) drops the extradition request, that would be great for Canada."[56] On 26 January 2019, McCallum was fired as Canada's ambassador to China by Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.[57]


In 1961, the government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker passed legislation to open up the Chinese market for Canadian farmers, despite the absence of diplomatic relations.[58] In 1968, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau initiated negotiations with the People's Republic of China that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations on October 13, 1970. Canada and China established resident diplomatic missions in 1971. By 1971, the countries exchanged ambassadors, and Canadian Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce Jean-Luc Pépin visited China. In 1972, Canadian Foreign Minister Mitchell Sharp led a Canadian trade delegation to China and met with Premier Zhou Enlai. Sharp also travelled to Shijiazhuang where he recognized the significant contribution to Canada–China relations of Norman Bethune.[59]

In 1973, Pierre Trudeau became the first Canadian Prime Minister to pay an official visit to the PRC, and in 1984 Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang visited Canada, becoming the first Communist leader to address Parliament. Governor General of Canada Jeanne Sauvé also conducted a state visit to China during her tenure. In 1985 as part of a growing concern for relations with China and Japan the Canadian Parliament passed an Act to create the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think-tank focusing on Canada–Asia relations.

In 1976, Trudeau refused to permit Taiwan to participate in the Olympic games held that year in Montreal unless they were willing to give up the name "Republic of China," which they refused to do.[60] Canada thereby became the first host country to breach its obligation to admit all teams recognized by the International Olympic Committee.[60]

By 1990, two-way trade exceeded C$3 billion, and in 1992, C$4.6 billion. In 1994 Canada established its four-pillar policy on China: economic partnership; sustainable development; human rights, good governance and the rule of law; and peace and security. That same year Prime Minister Jean Chrétien visited Beijing and Shanghai with Team Canada: two ministers, nine provincial premiers, the territorial leaders and the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Chrétien and Premier Li Peng signed a nuclear co-operation agreement and a letter of intent on six development projects in China. The following year Premier Li Peng visited Canada to commemorate the 25th anniversary of bilateral relations and attended Canada-China Business Council annual general meeting in Montreal.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Minister of International Trade Art Eggleton and Secretary of State (Asia Pacific) Raymond Chan visited Shanghai again in 1996 to attend the annual general meeting of the Canada-China Business Council, and Chrétien, Minister of International Trade Sergio Marchi, and Secretary of State (Asia Pacific) Raymond Chan visited Beijing and Lanzhou returned once more in 1998. In 1999 Premier Zhu Rongji visited Canada.

The Nexen Building in Calgary. Canadian oil and gas company Nexen was acquired in 2013 by China's state-controlled China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC).

In 2001 Team Canada visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It was the largest trade mission in Canadian history to that point. Chrétien was accompanied by close to 600 business participants, eight provincial premiers, three territorial leaders, Minister for International Trade Pierre Pettigrew and Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) Rey Pagtakhan. In 2003 Premier Wen Jiabao visited Canada. President Hu Jintao visited Canada in 2005 and met with Prime Minister Paul Martin. The two leaders announced a "strategic partnership" and said they would double trade within five years. Martin said he had discussions about human rights with Hu.[citation needed]

Since 2003, China has been Canada's second largest trading partner, passing Britain and Japan. China now accounts for about 6% of Canada's total world trade (imports and exports combined).[61] Between 1998 and 2007, imports from China grew by almost 400%.[61]

According to a study by the Fraser Institute think tank, China replaced Japan as Canada's third-largest export market in 2007, with CA$9.3 billion flowing into China. Between 1998 and 2007, exports to China grew by 272 percent, but only represented about 1.1 percent of China's total imports. In 2007, Canadian imports of Chinese products totaled C$38.3 billion.

Leading commodities in the trade between Canada and China include chemicals, metals, industrial and agricultural machinery and equipment, wood products, and fish products.[62]

According to the China Goes Global survey conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in 2013, Canada was poised to accept more trade and investment from China as it is viewed by Chinese companies as being one of the most open countries to their investment.[63]

In 2013, Canadian oil and gas company Nexen became a wholly owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-based CNOOC Limited. The Reuters reported that the "deal gave CNOOC access to acreage in the Gulf of Mexico, the UK North Sea and off the coast of Western Africa".[64] According to the Maclean's, "The CNOOC-Nexen deal touched off a great deal of controversy about what degree foreign state-owned control of Canadian resources is acceptable. That the deal came from a Chinese company, in particular, raised concerns in some quarters about doing business with a non-democratic state."[65]

Canada had a major trade imbalance with China (nearly CAD$36 billion in 2017)[3] leading Trudeau to strive to increase exports, primarily agricultural products. On 15 October 2018, he stated: "Obviously, China is the world's second-largest economy and growing, and will remain an important place to do business and to look for opportunity ... We will continue to look (at increasing trade), but we will continue to do it in the way Canada always has, mindful of the challenges, both of scale and of different approaches to business, in a way that is thoughtful about drawing benefit and protections for Canada."[66] About a month later, Chinese premier Li Keqiang called for more trade with Canada and hinted that China was open to discussing the free-trade agreement that Canada had suggested.[67]

The negotiations were continuing, although the relationship between Canada and China was somewhat strained because of concerns about the latter's record on human rights and various trade issues.[68] This was exacerbated in December 2018 by Canada's arrest of Meng Wanzhou, based on a warrant issued by a court in New York state and the subsequent detention of two Canadians living in China. The effect on trade between China and Canada was not yet apparent as of mid December, but some effect was likely, based on China's warning of "grave consequences" if Meng was not released.[49] By 18 December, the free-trade discussions between the countries had been halted, however.[69]

The political tensions were unlikely to lead to a major, long-term disruption of trade between the two countries, according to Fraser Johnson, a professor at the Western University's Ivey School of Business. He stated, "I really can't imagine it happening. There's just too much at stake. I don't think either country wants to damage (the relationship)."[70]


Vancouver's Chinatown. In 2016, people of Chinese origin made up 27% of all Vancouver residents.

In recent decades China has consistently become Canada's largest source of immigration every year. The numbers are even larger when people from Hong Kong are added. Chinese Canadians are now one of Canada's largest ethnic groups, after Europeans and First Nations population. They are set to overtake Koreans as the largest group of international students studying in Canada.

Extradition treaty[edit]

In the first year of his prime ministership, Justin Trudeau's government agreed to talks on a bilateral extradition treaty with China in 2016. At the same time, Canada negotiated the release after a two-year Chinese imprisonment on espionage charges of Canadian missionary Kevin Garratt; and also had a wrangle over Canadian canola (oil seed) exports to China. Charles Burton, presented as a critic of the government policy and former Canadian diplomat as the treaty talks were revealed, said in a New York Times account, "We don't seem to have the linguistic and cultural expertise and political knowledge to defend our interests against a very sophisticated diplomatic engagement by China, which seems to always come out on top".[71]


Canada and PRC have several schools twinned with each other:

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]