You are hereA Talk by His Excellency Zhang Junsai – Chinese Ambassador to Canada
A Talk by His Excellency Zhang Junsai – Chinese Ambassador to Canada
by James D. Poborsa
On Monday January 21st, 2013, the Munk School of Global Affairs hosted a talk by His Excellency Zhang Junsai, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Canada. While the event was a more or less stage managed affair attended primarily by individuals in government, policy and business circles, the ambassador provided a thorough and forthright outline of China’s foreign policy objectives, particularly in the wake of the recent leadership change in Beijing, along with recent developments in Canada-China relations.
The ambassador began by outlining China’s desire for peaceful development, with a focus on mutual cooperation (huxiang hezuo) as the core principle structuring China’s international relations. The ambassador stressed that in economic terms, China strives to achieve ‘win-win’ (shuangying) solutions which are ‘mutually beneficial’ (huli) for all countries involved, and reiterated the current administration’s support for the five principles of peaceful coexistence. These were initially developed in 1954 for solidifying relations between China, India and Burma (Myanmar), though they have come to solidify China’s foreign policy agenda in recent decades (a short history is available here).
As was expected, the discussion primarily centred around issues of economic development, and China’s economic relations with other nations. The ambassador outlined that China has established formal relations with, and invests in, over 170 countries, and asserted that China aims to accommodate the concerns of all countries, and that maximum benefit for China is not sought after in all cases. For instance, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China bought up to 93 billion in international bonds, and cancelled the debts of 50 underdeveloped nations. Solidifying China’s position as ‘the’ engine of economic growth worldwide, the ambassador related that in 2009, China’s GDP growth accounted for a significant percentage of overall world GDP growth (World Bank figures outline a GDP growth rate of 9.3% for China in 2009). In light of the financial crisis, the ambassador discussed deficiencies within international financial institutions, and called for increased financial regulations and the reform of banking systems to be more equitable and inclusive. While China is now the worlds 2nd largest economy, GDP per capita remains low – an issue which Zhang conceded requires considerable domestic attention. Primary importance was given to the sharp divide between rural and urban incomes, which most scholars would argue has been exacerbated since Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour. Zhang noted that while urbanisation is now at 51% in China, much remains to be done regarding rural underdevelopment. Perhaps given that Xi Jinping wrote his doctoral dissertation on the problem of marketisation in rural villages (entitled Studies in Village Marketisation, Zhongguo nongcun shichanghua yanjiu), domestic economic policy will shift towards the relatively underdeveloped interior.
As China is preoccupied with its own development problems, the ambassador asserted that China has neither the intention, nor the capacity, to seek hegemony, and is instead primarily concerned with the expansion of its market presence in other countries – particularly in those nations in which it does not currently have a major presence. On the issue of climate change, China has adapted and implemented a national climate change programme, with the twofold aims of energy conservation and pollution reduction central to government policy, along with an effort to cut carbon emissions by 40% of 2005 levels by the year 2020. This is to be achieved by an increased emphasis on wind, hydro, and solar (China is already the greatest producer of solar panels in the world), along with the construction of new nuclear reactors (an issue which has recently received some press).
Food and energy security are further policy priorities, along with counter-terrorism. Zhang stipulated that China currently seeks new models of security, and outlined the principles of mutual trust, benefit, and accommodation. Concomitant with its rise as a geopolitical actor, Zhang reiterated the sentiment that China will refrain from military expansion and hegemonic politics, and instead focus on peaceful development – a policy often referred to as ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ (a short critique of which can be found here). While China opposes military intervention into the sovereign affairs of other nations, Zhang outlined that China currently contributes a considerable number of peacekeepers to the UN (statistics can be found here). Perhaps most surprisingly, while calling for an end to violence in Syria (China does not formally side with the Syrian government), Zhang outlined the importance for political transition, seemingly hinting at the necessity for democratic transition. This is particularly prescient given the fact that China was able to avoid its own Jasmine Revolution in 2011, primarily via strict censorship and a thorough police crackdown on dissidents and protesters.
Turning to the topic of territorial disputes, Zhang noted that land boundary issues have been peacefully settled with 12 out of 14 neighbours, while a peace treaty is in place with India until their border dispute is settled. Regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Zhang outlined the desire on the part of the Chinese government to seek peace, though he rather forcefully and ironically asserted that China will not seek peaceful development at the price of its own national interest, and instead argued that military force can and will be used regarding issues of territorial sovereignty. The Diaoyu/Senkaku island disputes were naturally in focus here, with Zhang stipulating that the majority of historians have shown that the islands have historically belonged to China (a subject of much contention). Despite this, Zhang pointed out that while China has sought a rational and moderate approach to the issue, they will not yield regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and will pursue a policy which seeks their return to the PRC.
On the topic of Canada-China relations, Zhang noted that Canada was among the first 5 Western nations to enter into formal relations with China in the early 1970s, with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau making an official visit to China in 1973. As a further indication of positive historical ties, Zhang discussed how during the famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Canada defied a US trade embargo and exported wheat to China. Currently, Canada is China’s second largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in excess of $60 billion dollars. There was also a 30% increase of Chinese tourists to Canada last year, and there are currently around 70 000 Chinese students in Canada. As such, Zhang highlighted the importance of forging closer relations in the cultural, educational, and tourist sectors, though he stipulated that mutual trust between the two nations must underlie policy, and that we must learn to understand our differences and respect each others interests. Bilateral cooperation, particularly concerning investment and trade in energy and resources, will foster an environment of mutual collaboration that can help cultivate new engines of growth in the future. Zhang further noted that we share responsibility over regional and global issues, particularly as regards our responses to the global financial crisis, UN reforms, counter-terrorism, climate change, and energy security, though no specific details were given.
During the question and answer period, which was done via written and moderator approved questions (no doubt to avoid sensitive issues), a variety of pragmatic issues were raised, such as the distinction within China between foreign and domestic policy. In response, Zhang noted that foreign policy is simply viewed as an extension of domestic policy, as China’s foreign agenda is primarily engaged with solidifying its economic interests. Indeed, what is now termed China’s overseas direct investment (ODI) has risen exponentially year on year, in an effort to bolster ties with other nations and secure resources. Echoing the sentiments of the realist school of international relations, one questioner posited the impossibility of the principle of mutual benefit and non-interference among state actors. Zhang responded by noting that China will do what it wants domestically, arguing that external interference regarding domestic issues was thoroughly unwelcome, though the ambassador did note that China was open to dialogue, particularly concerning human rights issues.
A further question concerned the recent US military pivot towards Asia, and enquired as to how this might affect China’s regional military policy. Zhang noted that as with most regional issues, one can see the influence of the United States, and that while China respects US influence in the Asia-Pacific region, it hopes that the US will play a positive role and help the region to flourish. Despite this, Zhang stipulated that the US must respect China’s national sovereignty, and refrain from military posturing concerning issues which China deems of domestic relevance. The final question brought up the problem of developing better economic ties between Canada and China, and averting Canada’s domestic suspicion of China’s economic motives. The questioner raised the issue of the recently approved Nexen deal, and previous attempts on the part of state owned firms to purchase Canadian energy firms, which have been blocked by the Canadian government. Zhang’s response was that we should deepen cooperation and promote free trade, and noted that while Canada is not as adept at doing business in Asia as other nations – Australia, where he was previously ambassador, is purportedly much better at it – this need not be the case.
In all, the talk was informative for those with little knowledge of China’s foreign policy objectives and the development of Canada-China relations, as the ambassador did an excellent job of outlining policy issues and responding to questions, though for a more critically engaged analysis of these issues one would, as was to be expected, need to turn elsewhere.