Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was surprisingly silent on China during her major foreign policy speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday, leaving Canada’s evolving relationship with the Asian superpower undefined, says former Quebec premier Jean Charest. 

Charest, now a partner in the law firm McCarthy Tétrault, has extensive business dealings in the region. He was reacting to Freeland’s decision to mention China only once in her half-hour speech laying out Canada’s foreign policy priorities.

“The world will shift a great deal in terms of its economy, in terms of its politics, towards that part of the world, towards Asia,” Charest told CBC News.

“So, I must say, I think a number of people will be waiting to see what the next step will be on China because this speech doesn’t really give us a view of what the government’s position is in relation to building a new relationship.”

The federal government is conducting exploratory talks with China to determine whether the two countries should pursue a free trade agreement. Online consultations with the Canadian public and industry on that topic wrapped last Friday.

Freeland’s speech gave no hint of what the federal government gleaned from those consultations.

Regardless, Charest says that Freeland’s speech was too reactionary to what is going on south of the border.

“I take the foreign policy statement as being very contemporary, very much a reaction to the election of Mr. Trump and very much a reaction to what happened and transpired at the G7 and the NATO meeting in Europe only 10 days ago,” Charest said.

China filling void left by U.S. 

The irony, says Charest, is that U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy moves, such as his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change deal, are pushing the world towards China, which is eager to fill the void left by the U.S.

He points to the Chinese president’s speech in Davos last January, where Xi Jinping said China was ready to pick up the mantle on issues such as climate change and world trade.

“We need to get our heads around that and figure out which kind of relationship serves our interest and allows us to engage with China in a way that recognizes the role they will be playing in the rest of the world,” Charest said.

One of Canada’s former ambassadors to China was just as perplexed by the lack of references to the Canada-China relationship.

“The statement is rooted in classic Liberal foreign policy, which blithely assumes that the world needs more Canada. It’s actually going to get more China,” David Mulroney wrote in an email to CBC.

“It’s not evident we’ve done the hard thinking about the priorities and trade-offs required of us to survive and thrive in a world in which China’s reach and influence are expanding.”

Speaking to Canadians

Canada has sought to engage with China since the Trudeau government came power. Justin Trudeau and Freeland have made official visits and so have other ministers, including International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.

Carr is in China right now on a trade mission focused on clean energy, and selling Canadian softwood to into the Chinese market.

When asked about her speech, Freeland told reporters she was speaking to Canadians about Canada.

“I wanted to be saying to Canadians this is about us, and this is about us standing on our own two feet, having a foreign policy that expresses, as an independent and sovereign country, what we need to achieve in the world to guarantee our safety and security and also to promote our values,” Freeland said.