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[Hwang’s China and the World] Mapping out Korea’s diplomacy through Canada

Colin Robertson, vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Colin Robertson, vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute


Just as how Korea is referred to as the East’s Land of the Morning Calm, Canada is the West’s. Despite its vast territory, Canada has often flown under the radar on the global stage because of its small population and proximity to the world’s largest economy, the US. From Korea’s standpoint, news from the four major powers -- the US, China, Japan, and Russia -- have mostly dominated the headlines here. What we do hear occasionally about Canada, such as the young prime minister coming to power or Canada being the active model country in international development and public diplomacy, gives the image that Canada is a wealthy advanced country.

Meanwhile, Chinese Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei’s daughter, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada in December 2018. At the request of the US, Canada arrested Meng, who is also Huawei’s deputy chair, and China later detained Canadians on spying charges. China’s tit-for-tat move was in response to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s open criticism in 2020 of China’s “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.” He took aim at Beijing’s human rights suppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at the 50th anniversary of China-Canada diplomatic relations.

But when we realistically consider that China is the second-largest trading partner to Canada while Canada is not a major country to China, does Canada have the actual power to counteract China? Is it possible for Canada to stand up alone and play its own diplomacy without leaning on the US?

Canada’s middle power diplomacy is a significant learning lesson to Korea which has emerged as a new middle power itself, and is seeking to reestablish relations with China as the Korean government changes hands.

In this regard, this week I invited former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, currently vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He is an executive fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and a distinguished senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.



Hwang: What drives Canadian foreign policy?

Robertson: With a relatively small market (38 million) Canada must trade to generate our prosperity. Trade requires peace and stability. For a middle power like Canada to have impact, a rules-based order is essential. We are, by nature and habit, multilateralists. We enjoy membership in just about every multilateral organization going, notably the G-7 and the G-20; NATO; and the North American Aerospace Defense Command; the United Nations and its alphabet soup of agencies; the Commonwealth and la Francophonie; the World Trade Organization; the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation; the Canada-USA-Mexico Agreement; Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement; the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership among others.


Hwang: Does Canadian foreign policy have a theme?

Robertson: Canadian foreign policy aims active and constructive internationalist engagement, especially in multilateral fora. At our best, we are a quietly competent helpful fixer. At our worst, we are a tiresome, sanctimonious preacher. Canadians were engineers to the American architects during the post-World War II reconstruction, admitted to the G-7 (1976) and then a godfather to the G-20. In helping to create the rules-based order, Canada introduced the principle of “functionalism.” This is the abiding legacy of Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson and others -- internationalists by conviction, they were realists by experience. Canada was not a great world power, but in certain sectors -- food and energy -- we had vital interests and capacity. This merited a place at the table. With competence, investment and artful diplomacy we earned our seat in the UN’s functional agencies and, albeit temporarily, joined the great powers on the Security Council.


Hwang: Today, Canada’s international status is quite impressive. Canada belongs to almost every multilateral club, be it economic, security, or with a general or specific purpose in creation.

Robertson: Yes. On balance this is a good thing, but prioritization of attention and resources is overdue. We pride ourselves on our multilateralism but the defeat (2020) in our quest for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council (we lost to Norway and Ireland) should serve as a wake-up call that proclaiming “Canada is back” does not make it so. It means investments in collective security and defense as well as development assistance and the kind of helpful fixing that we are doing with the Lima Group in Venezuela and through the Ottawa Group in working to reform the World Trade Organization and in using our convening power as we did by hosting a discussion on Korea during the Trump administration.


Hwang: What is the core national interest from Canada’s perspective?

Robertson: Like most nations Canadians strive for prosperity but because we are a pluralistic society -- 1 in 5 Canadians was born outside of Canada -- we must also strive for national unity. Our diversity as a people and as a place to live obliges us to practice tolerance, accommodation and compromise. We try to govern by consent. Managing this diverse, often fissiparous, federation is no easy task. It depends on mutual accommodation, first with our climate and geography and then between political parties, between different interests, between the regions, between rural and urban, between English Canada and French Canada, with the Indigenous peoples and with newcomers. We depend on immigration who bring new skills and ideas with them. The challenge is to weave these many constantly evolving threads into a kilt for every place and every season.


Hwang: Canada’s national characteristic is like having no shape in the shape, but also having shape in no shape.

Robertson: We don’t have a lot of history in comparison to Europe or Asia. Some would argue that this is a good thing. Canada continues to be a country “in development” and an experiment in pluralism. The humorist Will Ferguson remarked that the great themes of Canadian history were keeping the Americans out, the French in and the natives out of sight. We’ve managed the Americans and the French fact. Today there is realization and recognition on reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples.

To say governing Canada requires the capacity to listen and the capacity to balance would be an understatement. The poet F. R. Scott sarcastically described the modus operandi of our longest serving prime minister, Mackenzie King, a pudgy bachelor who engaged in seances so he could speak to his dead mother:

We had no shape / Because he never took sides; / And no sides / Because he never allowed them to take shape … / Do nothing by halves / Which can be done by quarters.

While it was not meant as a compliment, Scott unwittingly captured the Canadian formula of accommodation.


Hwang: How can Canada be a meaningful partner in the Indo-Pacific?

Robertson: For now, our Indo-Pacific policy focuses rather more on promoting trade and investment than on effective geopolitics. Canada needs to invest more in to support security presence -- more naval and air presence -- and by joining the East Asia Summit and AUKUS and looking for a meaningful role in the Quad. We need to take more advantage and increase business utilization of our freer trade agreements i.e. CPTPP, Canada-Korea FTA while continuing our efforts to liberalize trade with ASEAN, India and Indonesia. Ministerial visits need to be regular and results oriented.


Hwang: Standing in between the US and China, what would be a better choice? The strategic ambiguity? Or the strategic clarity?

Robertson: While strategic ambiguity has its advantages for some nations and in some circumstances, in the confrontation between China and the USA, Canada must side with the USA. There is no question that for Canada it will always be the United States and then the rest. for Canada it is “America First” -- in trade, security and people-to-people relations.

Pre-pandemic, more than 400,000 people cross in both directions over the border daily. We trade nearly $2 million a minute with the US. The US takes 74 percent of Canada’s exports (we provide about 18 percent of US imports) and provides 64 percent of our imports. Americans hold nearly half the stock of foreign investment in Canada.


Hwang: There must be both pros and cons for depending on the US.

Robertson: This dependence on the US comes at a price, especially for our oil and gas which are both sold at a discounted price. We need to diversify our trade and increase the number of Canadian companies that export. We need to make better use of the people-to-people relationships. Our active, global immigration adds about 1 percent to our population each year and this adds to our people-to-people ties.

The renegotiation of the NAFTA (1994) and implementation (2020) of the Canada-US-Mexico agreement restores investor confidence and enables the potential for an enhanced North American manufacturing platform with continental supply chains, especially post-COVID and the requirement for security of supply and redundancy in sourcing. While life with Uncle Sam can be frustrating, we cannot change our geography, nor would we want to. Canada’s influence in the world is determined in large part by the perception that preferred place. The US looks to us to help interpret the rest of the world and the rest of the world looks to Canada to interpret the USA.

Hwang: What is the lesson that Canada has learned from what happened to Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels (Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig)?

Robertson: Canadians have had another reminder that authoritarian regimes, this case the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, cannot be trusted. As a first step we need to put teeth -- real sanctions -- on states like China that use hostage-taking.


Hwang: What kind of world do you think is coming after the war in Ukraine?

Robertson: Sadly, a world that is messier and meaner. It will be increasingly divided into three shifting blocs. The liberal democracies -- EU, G-7, NATO, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan -- are small but their economic weight is significant. But they also face internal divisions as the age-old divide between right and left is replaced by the starker division between populists and nationalists on one side and liberals and globalists on the other. The liberal democracies are pitted against the authoritarians -- China, Russia, North Korea, Belarus, Hungary, Serbia, Myanmar -- and sundry others in Latin America, Africa and Asia. A Xi Jinping-led China offers an alternative authoritarian system based on state enterprise and near-total surveillance aligned to a system of what the Chinese call “social credit” designed to keep the population in check. Both Xi and Putin are also convinced that the West is both decadent and in decline. And, as Putin told the Financial Times, liberalism has “become obsolete.” The rest include India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and most of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Like the G-7 and the Non-Aligned Movement before them they will pursue their own interests.


Hwang: What do you think the roles of the international regimes are?

Robertson: The multilateral institutions will fall into further disrepute. The UN Security Council is dysfunctional. The UN General Assembly and WTO are essentially just talking shops. Most multilateral organizations need reform e.g. WTO, WHO, IMF, World Bank at a time when we need them more than ever to deal with the big multilateral issues around climate, pandemics and inequality and nuclear proliferation.


Hwang: How do you evaluate Korea’s diplomacy? What direction should Korea head toward?

Robertson: Like Canada, Korea is a middle power. While the approach depends on the government of the day it seems to me that Korea has embraced the middle power concept, defined to suit Korean needs. While Korean policy is focused by necessity on North Korea, its external policy over the years is illustrated through, for example, “trustpolitik,” the Global Public Diplomacy Network, and the grouping of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia as a forum for middle powers to convene on global issues, and more recently in the New Southern Policy Plus.


Hwang: In case the middle power countries group themselves, how large would their influence be in the international society?

Robertson: Not as much as we would hope but in the absence of American leadership the liberal democracies will have to try to hold things together, although the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism did not meet the test in its first incarnation. While it is fine to talk about a D-10, the lesson of the Trump presidency is that without American leadership the rules-based multilateral system flounders.


Hwang: Korea will soon have a new government. Do you have any suggestions on where Korea-Canada relations should walk on, and where both can cooperate together?

Robertson: Canada and Korea are joined by ties of trade, history and a shared commitment to internationalism and a rules-based order. Over 500 Canadians gave their lives during that Korean conflict and Canada continues to contribute to the UN mission that continues to this day. Sadly, Korea remains divided and South Koreans live daily with the uncertainties created by Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un. This underlines the importance of our security relationship. Meanwhile, the Canada-Korea FTA (2014) provides a framework and platform, but the meat of these deals comes from deepening our business-to-business ties and developing partnerships in sectors including medical devices, smart cars and e-commerce as well as in the practical application of artificial intelligence and robotics, all areas in which Canada has interest and growing competence.


Hwang: What can Canada and Korea do as middle powers?

Robertson: To capture our relative potential as middle powers, Korea is sometimes described as a tiger while Canada is presented as a “cool moose.” We also are both stuck between much bigger neighbors that are variously described as dragon (China), bear (Russia) or eagle (USA). We are not without capacity, ranking as we do in any top 20 ranking of GDP and, perhaps more importantly, in the top 20 of the UN Human Development Index. As middle powers we need to defend those concepts that reflect our values and advance our interests. These include: first, free trade and market economies while recognizing that rising tides don’t lift all boats; second, managed migration that relies first on the neighboring nations, with financial and technical support from the wider community; third, peace operations that rely on armed forces from neighboring nations; fourth, sustainable development preserving the global commons, mitigating climate change and addressing pandemics.


Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and now a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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