Brian Lee Crowley

Thinking, not emoting, about NAFTA

One of the big public policy issues Canada is wrestling with is whether, and on what conditions, NAFTA can be renewed. Unfortunately, the political class seems more intent on whipping up emotion around the topic than helping Canadians to come to grips with the real issues and how we might turn this mess to Canada’s advantage. In order to fill this gap, Sean Speer and I co-wrote three op-eds (and Frank Buckley joined us on the first one) hoping to illuminate for Canadians some of the stakes, the realistic options and where Canada’s interests truly lie in these negotiations. In retrospect I see that the summary of our argument is that the NAFTA negotiations are like any dispute in a long-term relationship, like a marriage. There are three lessons to be learned:

  1. Get to understand what the other person wants. It’s not all about you!
  2. Look inward to find where you might have contributed to envenoming the dispute. You might think all the fault lies elsewhere, but usually responsibility is shared.
  3. Before your roving eye draws you to another potential partner, be sure you really understand how much you have invested in your existing relationship and how hard it would be to replace.

Sean, Frank and I applied Lesson One in the Globe on 3 July 2018 in which the three of us laid out what the Trump administration wants and how their world view is an important break from many of the assumptions of recent decades. The fact that Trump may come up with the wrong answers to the questions that exercise him does not mean he is wrong to ask them. There is also a video version of this piece on the page.

Then Sean and I applied Lesson Two in a 6 July 2018 piece for Macleans’ magazine where we reviewed the many ways that Ottawa has antagonised the Trump administration while bringing no benefit to Canada. As the current occupant of the White House might have tweeted, “Sad!”

Finally, we applied Lesson Three in a 20 July 2018 Globe op-ed examining the idea that “diversifying” our trade, especially to China, will somehow offer some kind of realistic alternative to our deep economic entanglement with the US. Not bloody likely!

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Getting real about China, on NAFTA, national security and trade diversification

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet these days about China, as any sensible person should. Everyone seems fixated on Donald Trump bullying Canada (and that is a reasonable concern) but the number of people who hold up China as some kind of alternative is truly staggering. If you want real, subtle, long-term bullying in unapologetic pursuit of national interests, you cannot do better than China. Add to that that China is an authoritarian, autocratic and repressive country without even a nodding acquaintance with the rule of law and a hostile relationship with the western alliance, etc., etc., etc., and China gets less appealing every day as a partner for Canada. Here are three recent op-eds in which I develop these various themes:

In the 30 May 2018 edition of the Globe, I took aim at China for its clear threats to Canadians’ national security. The context was Ottawa’s rather unexpected but welcome decision to veto the takeover of Canadian construction giant Aecon by a Chinese firm. As I pointed out, if this means that Ottawa is going to take national security threats from China more seriously (including their to-date insouciance about Huawei’s deep involvement in building Canada’s next generation 5G wireless network) that is very good news indeed and not before time.

Then came the G7 Summit. The G7 seems to me a little adrift these days, an organisation in search of a mission that would unite the disparate interests of Japan, North America and the largest European economies. My suggestion in an 8 July piece in Inside Policy: they should all agree to unite and reinforce their current disparate efforts to confront China’s disgraceful behaviour in the South China Sea that is an affront to the rule of law and freedom of navigation. There is also a video version of this piece.

Finally, Ottawa has been ramping up its focus on “trade diversification” as a kind of defensive card to play in its NAFTA negotiations with Washington. But of all the daft ideas, the one that China can replace or even partially compensate for our trade relationship with the US is surely the daftest. Read my op-ed, co-authored with Sean Speer, in the Globe of 20 July 2018 about why China is no trade saviour for Canada.

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MLI launches Pod Bless Canada — first 6 episodes

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute has launched a new series of podcasts entitled Pod Bless Canada. Each episode of roughly 30 minutes showcases a chat between an MLI representative and someone knowledgeable about a key issue of the day.  Here are links to the first six episodes:

On 2 Feb. 2018, Sean Speer and I talked debts, deficits and responsible public finances.

On 16 Feb. 2018 Shuvaloy Majumdar and I talked about the Canada-India relationship in the context of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to India.

On 22 Feb. 2018 it was the turn of MLI Sr Fellow Ken Coates to join me to talk about the opportunities for Indigenous people in the natural resource economy.

On 6 March 2018 Sean Speer to discuss the nexus between business and political decision making in Canada.

On 20 March 2018 in one of my personal favourites, Canadian J. Michael Cole, a specialist on Taiwanese affairs, came in to discuss with me China, Taiwan, cross-strait relations, tensions in the Indo-Pacific and more.

Finally, another favourite: on 23 March 2018 Ryerson University history professor Patrice Dutil and I talked frankly about whether Canadians should feel ashamed about Canada’s past.

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The Indo-Pacific Rim is where the action is for Canada

Talk to the Australians and they will tell you that the “Pacific Rim” is old hat. The action now is in the Indo-Pacific, in other words the littoral nations on the Pacific *and* the Indian Oceans. And indeed that is exactly how Canada should be thinking about its geo-strategic interests. Instead of thinking that China is the only game in town, we should be acutely aware of the dangers as well as the benefits of embracing the dragon and think about how to build up counterweights to Chinese power. The number one place to look should be the emerging Japan-India axis. Nothing could be more natural than for Canada to throw its lot in with such old friends who share so  many values and are looking themselves for friends and allies to counterbalance China’s rise. My analysis in the Globe and Mail on Nov. 25th, 2016.

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Avoiding China’s infrastructure mistakes

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes no bones about his admiration for China. He is also a great advocate of infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy. In my latest column for the Globe I explore the intersection of these two ideas, for the real Great Wall of China is the massive wall of debt they have accumulated to build infrastructure that, in the vast majority of cases, has destroyed value, not created it. This makes China (along with Japan, another nation addicted to high-cost but low-value infrastructure) an object lesson in the limits of infrastructure spending. Sure you might get a little bump of activity around the construction, but if the infrastructure itself doesn’t improve the productivity of workers and businesses you get stuck with the debt but not the increased economic activity to pay for it.

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China’s two-child policy no better than the old one-child one

Commentary in the West was largely silent or else vaguely supportive when China recently announced it was changing its deacdes-old “one-child policy” to a “two-child policy”. Allow me to be the exception. Whether the policy is one or two children is irrelevant. The fact that the Chinese state arrogates to itself the power to dictate such decisions to their citizens is quite unjustified for any rational policy reason (including “population control”) and is the pretext for an oppressive police state enforcement mechanism that has resulted in well-documented cases of the kidnapping of pregnant women and the forcible aborting of their unborn babies.  It is repugnant and we in the West should not abet it with our silence.

Read the argument in my latest column for the Ottawa Citizen.

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What Taiwan can teach us about managing China

Thanks to the Taiwan government’s generosity, I have just returned from a visit to the island as part of a Canadian delegation made up of think tankers and academics. The Taiwanese have built a society that is in many way exemplary and done so in the face of Chinese hostility and intimidation. Yet they have now developed an extremely close relationship across the Straits, a topic that is causing a lot of anxiety on the island. How close is close enough? How close is too close? For my thoughts on these questions, have a look at my latest column in the Ottawa Citizen and other Postmedia papers.

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Brian Lee Crowley