50 Years of Canada-China Relations: Complexity and Misperception

Published: Fall 2020    |    By: Gordon Houlden |    Volume 68, No.13

While the Canada-China relationship has waxed and waned over the half century since diplomatic ties were
established, there has been a broad trend towards expanded economic, political, and people-to-people
engagement. However, current political tensions between Ottawa and Beijing, in addition to the knock-on
effects of sharpening great-power competition between the U.S. and China, may impede any prospect of
further engagement or a more wide-ranging relationship.

With an eye on the current global political environment, this article examines the factors that have shaped the relationship since 1970 and which still govern the relations between the two nations. These factors include the vast gap in population/national power, dissimilar legal and social systems, global power alignments, and the reality that greater interaction often leads to greater conflict. Working with China is inevitable if we aim to solve global issues such as climate change. Dealing with China in a way that respects both our core values and national interests presents a tough challenge for Canadian policymakers moving forward.

About the Author

Gordon Houlden is the Director of the China Institute, a Professor of Political Science, and an Adjunct Professor of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta. Professor Houlden joined the Canadian Foreign Service in 1976, serving in Ottawa and abroad. Twenty-two of his years in the Canadian Foreign Service were spent working on Chinese economic, trade and political affairs for the Government of Canada, including five postings in China. His last assignment before joining the University of Alberta in 2008 was as Director General of the East Asian Bureau of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Under Professor Houlden’s leadership, the China Institute has focused on contemporary Chinese studies, with an emphasis on the political, economic, and security issues of the PRC. His third co-edited book on the South China Sea dispute will be published in early 2021.