Skip to content

Guest comment: We Need to Be More Vigilant in Our Dealings with China

P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Ph.D., is professor and Canada Research Chair in the study of the Canadian North at Trent University.

Publisher Mike Byrant’s Yellowknifer editorial on March 18 urges Canadians “to be more confident in our dealings with China.”

Buoyed by enthusiasm after meeting with Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu in Yellowknife this February, Bryant applauds the diplomat’s desire to deepen engagement with Northerners. The focus of that engagement was tourism, education and culture – uncontentious subjects designed to repair bridges frayed by years of deteriorating international relations. Indeed, the North has much to recommend itself to Chinese visitors, students and investors, but behind those smiles and kind words sit ulterior motives.

In our 2018 book, entitled China’s Arctic Interests and What They Mean for Canada, we were optimistic about Chinese businesses contributing to Northern development. At that time, corporate China seemed capable of working at arm’s length from the political agenda of the Communist Party. That optimism was sadly misplaced. What Beijing has made abundantly clear is that trade, investment and politics are inseparable. Business, educational and cultural exchanges with China come with unspoken strings. Criticism of its human rights; its environmental, labour and worker safety record; its aggression towards its neighbours; or its authoritarian system of government risks economic punishment. Through its agricultural boycotts against Canadian producers, embargoes against Australian coal and wine or its economic assault against tiny Estonia, the message is clear: free trade with China isn’t really free.

We have carefully tracked China’s efforts to influence and coerce Western states, using trade, research and even cultural and educational interaction as vectors for access. Last year, the Chinese government deliberately left Canada off a list of countries approved as international travel destinations for tour groups, with its embassy alleging that Canada “has repeatedly hyped up the so-called “Chinese interference” as “rampant and discriminatory anti-Asian acts and words are rising significantly in Canada.” According to the CBC, China now insists that Canada is not a “safe and friendly environment” for “overseas Chinese citizens” or visitors. This is nonsense of course, but it sends a message: Canada’s (justified) political criticism of China will be punished and Canadians will pay an economic price.

Bryant does not provide this context. He does not mention the Chinese buoy that entered Canadian waters or the state-media backed ‘adventurer’ Zhai Mo, who tried to force his way into the Northwest Passage in 2021. Bryant also does not mention how Chinese-owned Shenghe Resources managed to become a “cornerstone investor” in Vital Minerals – with a stake deliberately below the threshold needed to triggered a security review – and then purchased the rare earths mined from the Nechalacho site in the NWT. What was once touted as an example of the territory’s minerals bolstering Western resilience through friendly value chains has become yet another example of China’s dominance in critical minerals. The vision of Indigenous participation in the ownership, governance and economic benefits has now become Chinese ownership, board participation and value-add in China.

We agree with Bryant that Canadians should “be confident to show visitors what a free and open society looks like.” But we need to be careful about who we invite to visit – and who is investing, researching and studying in the North. Canadians’ preference for non-Chinese investment is certainly not “anti-Asian.” We should prefer partners that do not demand continuous self-censorship, use economic leverage for political coercion or are compelled by domestic law to collect and covertly hand over information to intelligence agencies.

If most Canadians feel increasingly suspicious and cynical about China, it is for good reason. Confidence in pursuing what may appear to be “win-win” opportunities must be matched by vigilance.

—By Adam Lajeunesse, Ph.D., associate professor in public policy at St. Francis Xavier University and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Ph.D., professor and Canada Research Chair in the study of the Canadian North at Trent University.