Sunday, January 10, 2016

Andrew Coyne: Why criticize the Saudi arms deal but support an insane trade agreement with China?

Andrew Coyne: Why criticize the Saudi arms deal but support an insane trade agreement with China?

Chinese President Xi Jinping. The idea of a free trade deal with China has been met largely with silence, if not outright approval, despite its human rights abuses.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty ImagesChinese President Xi Jinping. The idea of a free trade deal with China has been met largely with silence, if not outright approval, despite its human rights abuses.
It is hard to think of a government that has backpedalled as hard on as many fronts so soon after being elected as the Trudeau Liberals.
It took the Chrétien government, it is true, only a month to renege on its promise to “renegotiate or abrogate” NAFTA. But it was a couple of years before it made the transition from austerity-bashing to deficit-slashing, and a year or two more before it finally admitted it had no intention of abolishing the GST.
But here we are, barely two months into the new government, and already the Liberal platform is in tatters. The promise to hold deficits to $10-billion for two years is but a distant memory. The promise to bring in 25,000 refugees by New Year’s was off by a factor of four. The CF-18s are still flying bombing missions over Iraq and Syria, and may remain there past the original March deadline.
Then there is the matter of the Saudi tanks. Strictly speaking, the government’s decision to honour a $15-billion contract to deliver light armoured vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard is not in violation of any election promise: asked about it during the campaign, Justin Trudeau was clear that he would not intervene. But the government’s dissembling explanations of its stance are no less clearly contrary to the broader understanding on which it was elected: that it would not behave like the government that preceded it.
Certainly the government’s public insouciance over the deal is at odds with the self-righteous rhetoric of senior Liberals prior to the election over the Harper government’s willingness do business with the repressive Saudi regime. Yet it was after the election, not before, that the mass execution of 47 prisoners put fresh scrutiny on the Saudis’ long history of human rights abuses.
The Liberals might have explained their position in terms of blunt realpolitik — the Saudis, bloody-handed as they may be, are a bulwark against still worse butchers in a part of the world where none of the options are pretty, etc etc. But that would have invited questions about why they had only discovered all this after they were elected. So instead they have resorted to secrecy, doubletalk and bluster — that familiar combination from the Harper years.
Even before the election, candidate Trudeau was dismissing the vehicles, notwithstanding the 105 mm cannons mounted on their turrets, as mere “jeeps.” Since then, the government has disclaimed any responsibility for the deal, which it describes as a private contract — though in fact it was brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a federal agency, and though no such international arms deal can proceed without federal approval. At the same time, the government has flatly refused to release a recently-completed report on the Saudi government’s human rights record.
This sort of hypocrisy has rightly brought the government in for some heavy criticism. But meanwhile there have been developments on another file, also to do with trade, also involving a notoriously brutal dictatorship. Yet far from igniting a similar firestorm of condemnation, the latter deal has been met largely with silence, if not outright approval.
I speak, of course, of the free trade agreement with China the government is reported to be seeking. To be fair, no one could accuse the Liberals of aping the Conservatives on this one.
The Harper government, you’ll remember, was almost as heavily criticized for its reluctance to deal with China — something about human rights abuses, I believe — as the Liberals have been for dealing with the Saudis. When the premier of China publicly lectured Stephen Harper, on his first visit to Beijing, for his standoffishness, political and opinion leaders in this country rushed to his side — the Chinese premier’s I mean, not the former prime minister’s.
Yet the Chinese dictatorship’s record on human rights is at least as bad as the Saudis’. It is very likely the world’s most prolific executioner, though it is hard to say as it refuses to provide figures. “Torture and other ill-treatment [remain] widespread,” according to Amnesty International: “China’s criminal justice system is still heavily reliant on forced confessions,” using instruments as crude as spiked rods. Meanwhile “there is systematic repression of minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs, [and] Mongolians.”
“China remains an authoritarian state,” Human Rights Watch observes, “one that systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.” Overall, Freedom House assigns China a freedom rating of 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the best and 7 the worst. That’s better, marginally, than Saudi Arabia’s score: a perfect 7. But it hardly explains the very different responses they elicit.
To be sure, not every situation is the same. It might be argued, for example, that agreeing to trade freely with an odious regime is less objectionable than supplying it with arms. Or not: if Canada did not sell the Saudis LAVs, someone else would. If we are not directly supplying arms to China, we are providing it with the wherewithal, through trade, to buy them from someone else.
Indeed, the situations are arguably more similar than they are different. Our relations with both regimes are decidedly ambiguous. The Saudis are officially our allies in the war on terrorism, yet among the world’s largest sponsors of Islamic extremism. The same Chinese government with whom we are so eager to do business has made us the target of massive campaigns of espionage and cyber-warfare.
This may be nothing more than a statement that the world’s a complex place. No doubt some degree of hypocrisy is unavoidable in foreign affairs. There will always be a tension between our ideals and pragmatic necessities; the result may sometimes look a lot like selective morality. But we might at least acknowledge this, rather than pretending to a moral purity we do not possess or even aspire to.