Malaise on the international trade and foreign relations front

di Joe Volpe del 10 January 2019

TORONTO - “Heart, Purpose and B****s” used to be the basis of public policy.

Today, the “three witches” - selfies, tweets and photo-ops – carry the day. It seems like only yesterday, but it was 1961.

A doorman at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in downtown Montreal placed a call to his good friend, Alvin Hamilton, Minister of Agriculture in the Diefenbaker Government.

Italian-Canadians of a certain generation do not have fond memories of Diefenbaker. But this column is about policy making: recognizing a need and filling the vacuum.

The Doorman’s conversation with his friend went something like this: ”I have a couple of Chinese who claim to be representatives of the Government in Beijing; they have $ 17 million and need to buy wheat”. His friend responded, “that’s not much but send them to me and I’ll meet with them”.

In Ottawa, Minister Hamilton was moved by the description of the near starvation conditions brought about by the radical agrarian policies of Mao Zedong and American embargos designed to isolate “Communist China”.

Canada’s wheat producers, then responsible for over 10% of all Canadian exports, were sitting on reserves they could not sell. $17 million wouldn’t make much of dent, and the Americans, under a “trigger happy” President John Kennedy, wouldn’t be happy.

With his Chinese guests waiting in his office, Hamilton proposed to Cabinet that the sum be considered a down payment for an extended line of credit to the Chinese. His Cabinet colleagues, fearing American reprisals, did not agree. No consensus could be reached.

Contrary to the normal practice in Cabinet decision-making, Prime Minister Diefenbaker called for a vote. Alvin Hamilton’s plan lost 22 to one. Hamilton tendered his resignation. Diefenbaker refused to accept it.

He is reputed to have said that the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese and the livelihood of Canada’s western grain Producers were more important than strategies of the American Pentagon or the myopic views of 22 Canadian Ministers.

Hamilton sold China our wheat and extended a line of credit for further sales. The Chinese never forgot. That deal gave Canada “pride of place” in considerations by subsequent Chinese governments.

Eight years later, another Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, was the first Western head of government to be hosted by a Chinese counterpart, Premier Zhou En-Lai.

Although tough negotiators, the Chinese harboured a “friendship” for Canada because of the gesture of kindness and courage shown to the Chinese people in moments of extreme di§culty.

That sense of “friendship” seemed to guide their dealings with us. They kept buying Canadian products and services even if they had other domestic or foreign alternatives.

The relationship endured until 2008, when a short-sighted Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, refused to attend the opening ceremonies at China’s “Debutante Ball”, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. No matter how he “gussied up” his reasons, Harper did so because the American President, Barack Obama, had asked him to join in a coalition of nations protesting human rights abuses by the Chinese.

Once Harper agreed, Obama changed his mind. Harper plowed on. It was a significant loss of “face” for China. The Chinese have not forgotten; they have become “more practical”. At least as it relates to Canada and its Leaders.

Currently, the kerfuffle re “Huawei’s Dragon Lady” is feeding China’s skepticism concerning Canada’s ability or willingness to stand on its own two feet.

One has to be truly naïve to think that a judge/prosecutor in British Columbia, acting out of a great sense of moral and international duty, and mysteriously possessed with the travel information of a foreign business woman, felt duty bound to order the arrest of Huawei’s CEO.

She must have represented “a terrorist in the making”, one guesses. The truth is that yet another American President (Trump) asked (or demanded of) another Canadian Prime Minister (Trudeau) for help in showing muscle in his embargo placed on a nation (Iran) in another part of the World (the Greater Middle East).

In a barking contest between Big Dogs, Trump needed to make China cower in submission. The stage is the embargo against Iran and the proxy was Canadian “obligations under International covenants”.

Trump’s advisors wear “big boy pants”. Canada meekly complied.

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