Even as Canadians recognize the rising importance of China for the global economy, they are oriented toward their southern neighbour so Trudeau’s decision to pursue closer diplomatic and trade relations in the wake of the failed Transcontinental Trade Partnership (TTP) is fraught with challenges.

Stepping back from the current political debates about China (where the inevitable issues of human rights has emerged as important), offers us a good perspective on Canada-China relations and the public support for a closer relationship. To do this we look at a 2015 Pew Research multi-country survey (The Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here) that included asking Canadians a number of questions on China and the United States.

Access the full paper here.Jenkins Research – Attitudes about China-(2017)

The pursuit of closer ties to China may be a valuable long-term strategy for Canada but we can expect that Canadians will be very skeptical about the value of this pivot even taking into account the challenges faced with dealing with the U.S. during a Trump presidency.

Pursuing a closer relationship risks considerable political capital for two reasons:

The first is the widespread recognition that China does not respect personal freedoms.

  • While this recognition does not appear to be preventing some Canadians from thinking favorably about China, it does offer critics of various policy choices a point of leverage in reminding Canadians about who they are dealing with.
  • Emotional appeals to a core value such as personal freedom have the potential to trump other rationales, especially when economic and other rationales for closer ties are likely to be less understood by Canadians.

The second is the strong, attraction to the United States felt by Canadians.

  • At present it is the economic relationship with the U.S. that Canadians think is more important. A pro-China pivot will not resonate with many Canadians despite their recognition of the growing importance of China.

The possibility of a trade war with the United States and its consequences for Canada’s economy offers an interesting challenge. Although trade disputes between Canada and the United States were evident in 2015, they are clearly heightened now. This may give the Government of Canada more space to focus on China as an alternative market but the clear risk is that more attention to China creates the appearance that the Government is not focusing enough on its main economic partner.