More than two months have elapsed since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang concluded an unprecedented exchange of bilateral visits, signalling for some, the beginning of a new “golden decade” in Canada-China relations. Although likely premature, these hopes were not unjustified. Li’s visit was the first by a Chinese premier in 13 years, and both countries achieved a myriad of notable developments: 56 commercial deals worth $1.2 billion, the inauguration of an Annual Dialogue mechanism, and a commitment to double bilateral trade by 2025. At face value, the Canada-China strategic partnership is headed towards a new era of cooperation. Is this optimism misplaced?
Looming in the shadows, Canada’s decision to negotiate an extradition treaty with China remains a hot-button issue, threatening to inhibit progress towards a deeper partnership. Critics argue that China’s use of capital punishment and lack of transparency makes pursuing extradition negotiations undesirable. Furthermore, they claim that the Trudeau government’s decision to negotiate was a quid pro quo for the release of Kevin Garratt, a Canadian missionary imprisoned on espionage charges. In contrast, proponents assert that an extradition treaty would provide Canada with benefits, including firmly engaging China on important legal issues and controlling the flow of “hot money” to Canada. Both sides present compelling arguments, but which side is right?
Canada’s approach to the extradition treaty need not choose between one or the other; in fact, in the timeless tradition of Canadian foreign policy, the answer to this conundrum may lie in the middle. This balanced approach must account for the obvious risks and challenges. Firstly, China’s use of the death penalty is inconsistent with Canada’s international obligations. In 2015, Amnesty International estimated that China executed thousands of nationals for crimes such as corruption, remaining the globe’s top executioner. Secondly, Canada would have difficulty determining whether an extradited individual was an economic fugitive or political dissident which is problematic because Canada should not return persons whose political views make them a target of the Chinese state. Thirdly, the lack of due process in China’s judicial system raise fears of returnees not receiving a fair trial.
These concerns are legitimate and serious, but they do not provide the justification necessary for refusing to negotiate or discuss an extradition treaty. A fact that is often overlooked is that agreeing to discuss an international treaty does not equate to a binding obligation to conclude one. Critics often frame the topic of extradition in black and white, one or the other. Adopting this perspective mirrors the Harper Conservative’s early China policy that made Canadian moralism the primary driver of bilateral relations. Academics heavily criticized this failed approach for its aloofness, disconnect with allies, and depletion of Chinese good will, requiring a rapid reversal. Canadian values are important, but they are best advanced through comprehensive engagement, not naïve disengagement.
Negotiating an extradition treaty with China is the best option. Firstly, it indicates to Chinese leaders that Canada is willing to seriously consider its interests and concerns. Through interaction, Canada can convey its genuine desire to achieve a solution, while also expressing its legitimate concerns about rule of law and abuse. Furthermore, Canada cannot expect China to be receptive on issues of Canadian interest (e.g. canola exports), if it is unwilling to reciprocate.
Secondly, by engaging China, Canada can push it incrementally towards becoming the harmonious, responsible stakeholder that we desire. By virtue of our status as a middle power with minimal baggage, Canada is uniquely positioned to influence China’s legal system towards one that is more consistent with Western standards. Canada should embrace the challenge of negotiating an agreement that grants China what it desires while also remaining consistent with Canada’s high extradition standards and values. This will be difficult, but a successful treaty may serve as a model for other liberal democracies. As noted by Hugh Stephens, it is conceivable that Canada and China can find common ground.
Whether negotiations on an extradition treaty is an opportunity or a constraint on bilateral relations depends upon how it is framed. The extradition controversy is a microcosm of the historical human rights versus economic interest debate that has plagued Sino-Canadian relations. The Trudeau government made the correct decision in agreeing to negotiations, choosing to engage China on an exceptionally difficult issue. They seem to recognize the fact that although fraught with challenges, a new “golden decade” and potential golden era in Canada-China relations can be entirely consistent with negotiating and concluding a bilateral extradition treaty.
Yany Siek is a first year Master of Arts student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, specializing in Security and Defence Policy. He holds a BA (Hons.) in Political Science from the University of Alberta. Yany’s research focuses on Canadian foreign policy vis-à-vis the Asia-Pacific, particularly China.
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