From the editors: Can Canada trust China on trade?

Canadians are suspicious of China's motives, but they're profit-driven, just like us.

(Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

American author Jack London is perhaps best known for writing The Call of the Wild. But the author produced a fair bit of science fiction alongside his wilderness tales. In 1910, he published “The Unparalleled Invasion,” a short story in which he imagined a world where China was the lone superpower. Driven by an industrious workforce and prodigious rate of procreation, China builds an empire that sprawls from Korea to Iran. “There was no way to dam up the over-spilling monstrous flood of life,” wrote London. He added: “The world was nonplussed, helpless and terrified.”

In his tale, the other nations of the world unite and engage in wholesale biological warfare, dropping vials filled with scarlet fever, bubonic plague and cholera on Chinese cities. Once the country’s population is obliterated, the land is resettled by other countries, “according to the democratic American programme.” In the end, it’s the western powers who prove to be the true barbarians at the gate.

His story is a reminder of the long, deeply suspicious relationship between China and the West. More than a century ago, there were already fears that China would conquer the world through economic growth rather than military might. Outside the pages of science fiction, however, it is difficult to formulate the proper response to China’s economic dominance. We certainly do not want to succumb to sinophobia; London’s story offers a clear (and shockingly extreme) caution against such instincts. Then again, reports of human-rights violations and allegations of state-sponsored corporate espionage mean we must consider our next moves carefully.

That’s why the response to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Chinese trade mission is frequently filled with “on one hand, on the other hand” qualifiers. New trade deals will boost Canadian exports of everything from uranium to beef tallow. And Chinese companies could provide much-needed capital to help with the development of Canada’s oilsands. Yet we remain cautious about China’s motives. In a recent Harris Decima survey, 71% of respondents felt it was a bad thing for Chinese interests to buy a majority stake in a Canadian-owned company. The main concern was that the Chinese enterprise doing the buying would act according to government wishes, rather than market forces.

Such assumptions, however, often fail under scrutiny. Chinese state-owned companies are “profit-driven to the core,” according to a recent study by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the Canadian International Council. By studying the long history of Chinese energy companies in the global marketplace, study author Margaret Cornish determined “their organization and strategy reflect and respond to their global rivals rather than the Chinese state.” Other investigations by organizations such as the International Energy Agency have reached similar conclusions.

Admittedly, these studies address only one item on a long list of concerns and caveats involved in trade with China. The other items on that list, from human rights to copyright protection, must also be explored and tested on an individual basis.

The Harper government has taken admirable steps toward building a nuanced relationship with China. But it will never succeed if we allow unsubstantiated suspicion to bias us against what’s in our own national interest.

James Cowan is deputy editor of Canadian Business.