Monday, July 18, 2011

China & Canada: It Was Never About Human Rights

There's much foofaraw in the media about the visit by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to China. Are we now neglecting human rights in the interests of profit? Have we stopped supporting liberation struggles, like those of Tibet? NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar suggested that the Tories lacked "coherence" in their policy, focusing now on profit whereas before it was all human rights. He raised the "constructive engagement" of Richard Nixon as a model. Nixon?!

Well, I think there's a third axis of consideration that the polarity of profit vs human rights fails to take into account that has everything to do with geopolitical considerations that can't be simply reduced to profit.

First off, let's not kid ourselves, human rights have never been of any real consideration when it comes to Canadian trade or foreign policy. We have a free trade agreement with Israel - even as it builds illegal settlements and kills civilians with the same routine effort as a someone mowing their lawn. We traded with Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Likewise with the brutal dictatorship of Suharto in Indonesia. We supported the overthrow of the elected government of Aristide in Haiti and help to enforce the suppression of Lavalas, the most popular political party in the country - for what crimes I'm not sure (I guess the crime of not being sufficiently subordinate). We backed Mubarak in Egypt and the Saudi monarchy that won't allow women to drive and kills people with beheading. Hell, until three months ago we were trading and investing with Gaddafi in Libya.

No, human rights has nothing to do with it. It is merely a convenient fig leaf to cover other intentions. After all, who can say no to human rights? And, it's true, in places like China human rights are suppressed in regular and brutal ways. So, there is the ring of truth to such claims. But, as usual, the biggest lies are always dressed up in the brightest colours of truth to hide the ugliness of what's really going on.

Afghanistan is a fine example of this. The official line is that we're there to aid in democracy, defend the rights of women, human rights, development, etc. etc. Yet this doesn't square with our actual policy on the ground, which involves propping up and funding warlords and drug dealers who think human rights means the right of some humans (them) to kill, rape, and rip-off other humans. As was clear from the revelations regarding Canada's cover-up of routine torture of suspects, we happily went along with that conception. But it would also be wrong to think that there is some kind of one to one relationship between what we're doing in Afghanistan and some immediate financial interest. It would be more immediately profitable to run the gas and oil lines from Kazachstan through Iran, which already has pipe infrastructure - but Iran is an "enemy" and so, instead, extra money must be spent to run it through Afghanistan then Pakistan. It's also about "containing" China, which is a neighbour on the other side of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is thus of strategic interest.

Our relationship with China is not dissimilar and reflected our synchrony with US foreign policy on this issue. US pressures on China are about jockeying and geopolitics. It's about the US reminding China who is the boss in subtle ways - and that the relationship between the two countries is not that the US couldn't do without. What has shifted for Canada is the growth in Canadian trade with China, which is sucking up softwood lumber at a ferocious pace. Softwood lumber exports to China are now greater than such exports to the US. China has also become a significant investor in Alberta oil and gas production, as well as mining and smelting. And with the decline in the US dollar relative to the Canadian dollar, our trade with the US has been harmed. After years of running significant trade surpluses, Canada began to run trade deficits starting in 2009. As a trading nation there is pressure to find more markets - and if the US can't be that market, Canadian manufacturers and resource companies need to find one elsewhere. The decline in US/Canada trade reduces the incentive to follow US foreign policy quite so closely, which is why Obama met last week with the Dalai Lama and Harper & Baird didn't mention Tibet once. This shift is, in general, part of the shift to a less stable, multi-polar world. Harper's obsession with Arctic sovereignty and the increase to military spending are also part of this. While the US remains - and likely will for sometime - the pre-eminent world power, with military spending at levels that dwarf any other power, it nonetheless faces challengers, for instance China's move into Africa. It can't simply be assumed that hitching your wagon to the Yanks will get you what you need. Canadian imperialism wants to have a little more freedom of action. Baird's visit and honey-coated words for the Canada/Chinese relationship is part of that. It is just as cynical and corrupt as was our previous relationship.

Calling China an ‘important ally,’ Baird turns cold shoulder to fugitive - The Globe and Mail

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