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Canada needs to re-think how it engages with China, says former ambassador

David Mulroney (left) and (right) Bruce Kidd, interim principal and vice-president UTSC (photo by Ken Jones)

Canada’s former ambassador to China stressed the importance of better engaging with the emerging superpower in the first of several public lectures at the University of Toronto Scarborough that will examine the deepening relationship between the two countries.  

David Mulroney, who served as ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012 and is now a distinguished senior fellow at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, says Canada’s future prosperity and security will depend heavily on engaging a country that remains in many respects an enigma. 

"Trying to engage an increasingly influential China is not entirely new but our policy has traditionally involved merely looking at trying to maximize the upside and minimize the downside, which can only take us so far,” he says. “We need to better understand China because we can no longer afford to look at China’s rise through the lens of a series of random, disconnected events.”   

The lecture, titled Getting to China Competence, was the first in a series that will focus on deepening the understanding between China and Canada. The series is part of an agreement signed between UTSC and the Bank of China Canada (BOCC) that will include increased co-op placements for UTSC students with Chinese companies.  

Canadians shouldn’t underestimate China’s importance, says Mulroney. China is currently Canada’s second largest trading partner behind the United States and is larger than Canada’s combined trade with France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. China is also taking on a greater role in global issues. 

“Clearly we need to attach a higher priority to paying closer attention and to really attempt to understand China better.”

Mulroney suggested that a “street-level” approach would help in developing an understanding at a people-to-people level. He outlines education, immigration, investment in foreign real estate and tourism as notable aspects of this emerging relationship. He points to UTSC’s Green Path program as one positive outcome of this approach. 

Most noticeable of all is that Chinese citizens are travelling abroad in unprecedented numbers – many of whom place Canada high on their list of tourism destinations – because of ever increasing levels of disposable income. 

“These are ordinary citizens whose attitudes are being less and less influenced by the state. We need to think of the values these Chinese citizens find most important and we should engage with those values,” says Mulroney.

Don Campbell is a writer at the University of Toronto Scarborough.