The Chinese are coming! And other challenges to Canadian self-determination….maybe

Some analysts say a little bit of economic imperialism isn’t all that bad.

By Massoud Hayoun
Posted: Oct 19th, 2012

They’re coming – The Chinese. The Americans. And of course, experts in empire, the British.

They want to slice a nation into concessions. They want to guzzle its fresh water and pump its oil into their cars, tractors and factories – extract more and more of its fuels for their burgeoning economies. Even move into its embassies abroad.

Surprisingly, the nation victim to this frenzied rush for resources isn’t in the so-called ‘developing’ or post-colonial world. It’s Canada.

Canadian politicians, environmentalists and media are perennially abuzz with news of a pending imperialist takeover. But the kind of imperialism they describe isn’t imperialism in the traditional sense, where the oppressor pushes an economic agenda – a wholesale heist of natural resources – after a political takeover.

The kind of economic imperialism Canadians seem to fear starts off with business and spills over into politics.

Red scare?

Some politicians and environmentalists say China – once bent into submission by Western nations, which divided Shanghai into colonial ‘concessions’ and forbade ethnic Chinese (except nannies and cooks) from entering certain parts of Central, Hong Kong – is now guilty of going after Canadian land, oil and politics.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May maintains Chinese enterprises bidding for Canadian natural energies represent a threat to national sovereignty.

“Chinese state-owned enterprises are an extension of the Communist Party of China and threaten to erode sovereignty in different ways than other foreign investors,” May told The Vancouver Observer in an article on Chinese energy company CNOOC’s bid for Canadian gas and oil giant Nexen last month.

While the CNOOC bid awaits approval until November on Parliamentary Hill, it seems Chinese Communism has yet to infiltrate Canadian politics.

Still, in an unpublished segment of May’s interview, she argued business deals with the People’s Republic have already harmed Canadian self-determination.

“We are experiencing a loss of decades of environmental laws in order to satisfy the Chinese government and state-run oil companies,” she said.

“Harper defied expert advice to ensure all foreign takeovers were reviewed against an objective definition of ‘national security.’ In the 2009 amendments to the Investment Canada Act, Harper and the PC refused to define “national security” saying the term was too fluid to be capable of definition.”

What May described then was a kind of economic imperialism.

“We will lose sovereignty and the ability to regulate to protect the environment if Harper follows through with a free trade deal with China,” she said.

The Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA), slated to come into effect at the end of the month, will allow Chinese enterprises to sue the Canadian government for any measure seen as discriminatory to its operations, analysts say.

“If we have state-owned enterprises operating in Canada and if – on top of that — they get the same rights to sue Canada as the US and Mexico do under the Investor-State provisions of Chapter 11 of NAFTA, then we will have given away the store, lock stock and barrel,” May said.

Old friends

China is only the new kid on the block when it comes to Canada’s sovereignty woes.

May noted in the same interview that “Under NAFTA, [Canada] is hard-wired to be the number one supplier of foreign oil to the US,” and the United States has, in its ongoing presidential debates [see Republican candidate Mitt Romney on what he considers a kind of domestic supply] and legislative documents repeatedly referred to Canadian energy as part of its domestic ‘North American’ reserves.

Questions of sovereignty have colored the debate on various multi-billion-dollar bids to funnel more Canadian natural resources into the US – Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion and the Keystone XL pipeline.

And of late, Britain has entered the mix of allegedly nefarious super powers. Canadian commentators criticized a joint Ottawa-London initiative to collocate several Canadian and British embassies, saying the move, while economically sound in its gesture to cut back on public funds in the aftermath of a crippling global recession, would jeopardize “the ability of Canadian diplomats to act fully independently in certain foreign countries,” as The National Post writes.

The ebb and flow of the Canadian sovereignty woe

A sense of sovereignty under siege appears to be a kind of defining feature of Canadian national identity.

“Fears about Canadian sovereignty are as old as our country,” UBC political science professor Kathryn Harrison told The Vancouver Observer.

“After all, concern about a potential US invasion was one of the motivations for Confederation. I don’t think it’s surprising that there’s persistent anxiety either, though usually at a pretty low well. We are next door to a country with ten times more people and the largest economy in the world.”

Canadians worry about national sovereignty at some times more than others.

“There are some periods when economic or policy developments bring those concerns to the fore than others.  For instance the debate about Canada-US free trade in 1988. The proposed expansion of shipments of natural resources – coal, oil, natural gas — towards Asian markets is new, at least in scale,” she said.

High-profile pipeline expansion deals, slated to bring more Canadian fuels to the US have in turn fueled polemics on Canadian self-determination, Harrison argues.

“Export of large quantities of oil and gas is not new, but as long as we could rely on existing pipelines to do so, it was under the public’s radar. With the debate in the US over the Keystone XL pipeline and in Canada over the Enbridge Northern Gateway and, potentially, the Kinder Morgan pipeline [expansion] as well, people are more aware of those exports,” she added.

The problematic politics of polemics

Some analysts at both ends of the political spectrum say the debate on Canadian national sovereignty – directed most often against international business deals and pitting politics against profit – works against the national interest.

“They are classic know-nothing arguments. They are in some cases suicidal — maybe suicidal is too strong a word, but they certainly don’t support Canada’s national interest,” said renowned libertarian and McGill University economics and public policy professor Tom Velk.

Velk believes that what has been worded as an argument against economic imperialism is in fact a blow to globalization and economic development.

“Politically imposed isolation have been costly and unwise. I suppose the extreme examples are places like North Korea or Cuba,” Velk said.

“The word imperial has an automatic negative notion or weight attached to it. Great nations large and small are far more likely to benefit from working with one another,” Velk added.

“Where would we be without Roman empire and its language?” he asked.

Velk believes that the arguments for Canadian sovereignty are economically unsound, because various gestures to develop stronger economic ties with the Chinese and non-traditional partners will lessen Canada’s dependence on US business – and political directives.

“We don’t have the ability to pursue national goals against those of the United States… [but] Canada does have some levers,” Velk said.

“What Canada has been doing with the rest of the world is trying to expand a range of trading partners in Asia and Europe that may give Canada some limited degree of flexibility vis-a-vis the US markets,” he added.

Not only does Chinese business offer Canada a way out of a politically compromising tie to its neighbors down South, but there is a moral imperative behind selling natural resources to countries like China, Velk says.

“Canada has an enormous surplus of fresh water… China is in great need of water. They are trying to get water from the Tibetan highlands, at great political costs to the places that supply it. So it would be in the world’s interest, as well as in the Canadian interest to trade bulk water across the ocean,” he said, explaining that the “know-nothing” sovereignty crowd is “immoral.”

Double standards

On the other end of the political spectrum but equally opposed to sovereignty scares is Yves Engler, a liberal historian and political commentator and recent author of The Ugly Canadian, a book on the Harper administration’s foreign policy.

“It’s in the interest of Canadian companies to have local communities and the national government have greater control over natural resources,” Engler said, “Most Canadians want higher royalty rates and national control over resources. The more that becomes internationalized, the less likely that is.”

“But it’s a bit hypocritical of Canadian politicians to criticize foreign enterprises – and not to be critical of Canadian purchasing of international resources.”

Nexen, the Calgary-based Canadian energy giant at the heart of the China debate, owns oil operations in places like Colombia, Europe’s North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

What’s to lose?

Much of the discussion on sovereignty, as Engler noted, is about Ottawa and Canadians being able to dictate the destiny of their natural resources. But inherent in claims from politicians and media that the ostensibly communist Chinese government’s companies threaten Canadian sovereignty is the idea that they are threatening a Canadian way of life

The implicit fear is a loss of individual rights that set Canada apart from both China and the United States – healthcare, marriage for all and relatively unthreatened women’s reproductive freedoms.

Engler believes this idea bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding of those rights.

“Those gains are won by unions, farmers’ groups, feminist groups, LGBTQ organizations – I certainly wouldn’t frame it in the kind of Canada sovereignty angle,” he said.

Civilian fights for basic human rights go both ways between Canada and the US.

“The influence is beyond borders. It’s no coincidence that you find most progressive states are border states- what Vermont is doing with health care, for instance.”

Analysts like Engler note that Canadian and US activists often work beyond borders for various social causes. The anti-corporate economic justice movements that swept the world in the Occupy movement that started last year were a cross-border, continental affair, for instance.

What is unclear from reactions against Canada’s various international business deals is what the alternative would look like in practice — a Canada where Canadians are empowered to determine the destiny of their own natural resources, or, as Velk says, something akin to hyper-isolated states like “North Korea or Cuba.”


Massoud Hayoun is a North African American writer and speaker on Middle East, North African and Chinese affairs. He has written for The Atlantic, TIME Magazine…Read Massoud Hayoun’s bio »

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