Yun Sun Testifies on Canada’s Relationship with China at the Canadian House of Commons

  • March 12, 2020
  • 5:26 pm

Good morning. It is a great honor for me to be invited to provide perspectives and analysis to the special committee on Canada-China relations. I was asked to provide views on China’s global role and approach to the international system and recommendations on Canada-China relations.

Historically and traditionally, the only international system that China had known and been accustomed to, is one of a hegemonic stability centered on and dominated by the “Middle Kingdom”- a superior and self-perceived benevolent country/civilization. The hegemon- China’s superiority in military and economic power formed the foundation for peace and stability through deterrence, coercion and war. And the benevolence, such as demonstrated by the hegemon’s provision of public goods from advanced culture to hardware infrastructure, in China’s view, anchored the desirability of the system to other states. In the view of China, China’s superiority is the foundation for the stability and harmony of the system. In the Chinese concept of the world order, harmony does not originate from equality among all countries, but from a well-defined and well-enforced hierarchy in which roles and responsibilities were assigned according to each country’s hard and soft power. The vision stipulates states recognize and pledge their deference to the strong and benevolent hegemon, and that when peace and stability will happen.  

This system, existed for two thousand years for China until it encountered its most critical existential threat when the Western system of nation states prevailed in Asia in the 19th century. While the China-centric system preached the homogeneity of the Chinese civilization among all states on its periphery, the Western notion of nation states emphasizes their heterogeneity and hence, differing and competitive national interests. What we have witnessed with China’s foreign policy in recent years is an assiduous attempt to break away from the Western discourse and reestablish the traditional Chinese model of hegemonic stability. In China’s view, China’s primacy in the region stands a reasonable chance to prevail.  China, through its power, will create an alternative order based on a different set of values.

This is essentially the goal that the current Chinese leaders are pursuing. China’s rising vitality and intensification of its foreign policy behaviors are the manifestation of its bid for regional hegemony and global power status. That regional hegemony may not deny U.S. access to the East Asia/West Pacific region, but does dictate that U.S. must abide by the rules developed and enforced by the regional power. This is the fundamental cause of the escalating strategic rivalry and great power competition we are witnessing between the U.S. and China today. The U.S. has traditionally played the role of an offshore balancer to ensure the plurality of the region by channeling power to its regional partners. However, as China strategically applies its “carrots and sticks” foreign policy to displace the U.S. first in the Asia region then more broadly across the globe, this great power conflict most likely will continue to escalate.

Here I wish to say a few words in particular about China’s mentality about the West, which is highly relevant for the discussion we are having here today.

When China’s superiority crumbled in the 19th century, what has ensued is a sense of pathos, a self-pity and a victim mentality targeted at the West. With China’s rise and resumption of great power status, it rapidly evolves into China’s own “destiny manifesto”, a firm belief in China’s pre-ordained and pre-destined superiority to lead the world and a mentality, as well as an urge for revenge when the West seems to reject or disrespect China’s “rightful status”. In other words, China today still maintains a high level of victim mentality abnormal for a great power, which translates into a heightened sense of vulnerability, hostility and retaliatory actions when it is triggered. Due to this mentality and China’s newly acquired instruments and capacity to inflict damage on other countries, the policy toward China by any country has become increasingly difficult.

As shown by the recent Meng Wangzhou case and China’s retaliation, Canada is caught between two great powers in their contentious “tug of war”. In China, there is no doubt that the reparation of the ties, or the “renormalization” of bilateral relations will have to be predicated upon Meng’s release, or at the minimum, upon her not being extradited to the U.S., combined with significant policy moves from the Canadian government that shows goodwill toward China. Anything less than significant will be appreciated by China but unlikely to generate the policy change people would like to see. The recent Chinese reactions to Canada’s positions on the coronavirus outbreak in China are one such example at hand.

The question on how to effectively deal with China while protecting Canada’s national interests is apparently a hard one. While the desire is to maintain neutral and avoid difficult binary situations of picking a side, Canada may not eventually have the option or luxury to do so. Canada and the U.S. are the closest allies. And we share important common interests from democratic values to the international norms and rules, from our national security to our bilateral trade. Recent developments have deepened the disagreement between Canada and China both on domestic political issues to its foreign policy behaviors. These are basic facts. 

To deal with China effectively at this difficult time requires Canada to develop more leverages and influence vis-à-vis China and open up more space, new space between U.S. and China in the era of great power competition. Alliance management should not just be the leader of the alliance managing its partners. It goes both ways. In these fluid times, it is even more critical for the partners to manage the alliance relationship in order to mitigate or minimize the potential chance of victimization of collateral damage on specific issues. Canada could develop more astute and sophisticated understanding of China and calibrate the outcomes of each interaction between China and Canada. But beyond that, how to shape the policy and behaviors of allies, as well as prepare for and manage the consequences of the joint decisions will be of utmost importance. In addition, there are increasing demands among middle powers in Europe and in Asia to develop cooperation among themselves in order to restrain and balance hostile behaviors of great powers. This is a potential direction that Canada could consider more as a priority as well.

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