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Ottawa should learn from Australia’s extradition debacle with China

Justin Trudeau should take heed: Australia's Prime Minister just suffered an embarrassing setback trying to do with China just what Ottawa is considering.

The political blowback that stopped Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull's plan to adopt an extradition treaty with Beijing has implications that are far wider than the return of accused criminals who have fled – with ripples in Canada, too.

It's a lesson that growing economic ties with China don't necessarily make Westerners more comfortable with Beijing's politics – or any measure that makes them feel like they're swallowing its ways. Australia had struck a free-trade deal with China, but Australians couldn't digest a deal with its justice system.

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Read more: Former CSIS directors question Canada's pursuit of extradition treaty with China

Mr. Trudeau should keep that in mind. He has agreed to hold exploratory talks on a Canada-China extradition treaty, but the big deal for his government rests in another set of talks on a free-trade agreement.

The political question he faces is not only whether Canadians will accept an extradition treaty, or even whether they'll resign themselves to it if it means lucrative trade and benefits for Canada's economy. It's whether the distaste for an extradition treaty, or things like it, will scare Canadians away from economic initiatives such as free trade.

Beijing wants both. They want trade deals, but they also want acceptance in other ways. They want an extradition treaty because they want their fugitives back, acutely, but it's also the kind of arrangement that interconnects their system – and not just their economy – with the West's, in an entrenched, normalized way. Canadians, like Australians, don't seem to want that.

Australia is closer to China, and in some ways a decade ahead of Canada on ties – students, investment, trade and, more recently, a formal free-trade deal.

But when Mr. Turnbull tried to move forward on an extradition treaty that was signed years ago, it was too far: A right-wing senator started a move to block, Greens joined forces, some legislators from Mr. Turbull's own Liberal Party broke ranks, then the opposition Labor Party opposed it. Those politicians probably weren't divorced from the public mood. The notion that an extradition treaty meant Australia was endorsing China's justice system stuck in the craw – the 99.9-per-cent conviction rate, the co-opted judiciary, politically motivated trials and coerced evidence.

But Mr. Trudeau has to know Canadians have similar qualms.

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Polls suggest Canadians are keen on doing business with China, as they see Asia as a growth market that's important to their prosperity. The Asia-Pacific Foundation's 2016 poll found 46 per cent of respondents support the idea of a free-trade agreement with China. But they don't see China as benign – 60 per cent saw its rising military power as a threat to the Asia-Pacific region – and they don't see its human-rights record improving. They don't want the regime in Beijing mixed into Canada's business: A majority approve of Chinese investment in Canada if it comes from private companies, but 80 per cent are against investment from Chinese state-owned enterprises.

With those sentiments, a treaty to allow China to demand the return of fugitives is likely to be seen as compromise of Canadian democratic values. Guy Saint-Jacques, who was Canada's ambassador in Beijing when Mr. Trudeau agreed to talks on an extradition treaty last year, said it's far from clear an extradition deal can be struck because of the undeniable failings of China's justice system. But Mr. Saint-Jacques thinks Ottawa should use the talks to encourage China to improve its standards. He thinks expectations of an extradition deal should be low: He estimates there's about a 60-per-cent chance Canada could strike a free-trade deal with China within three or four years, but only a 5-per-cent chance of reaching an extradition treaty.

"I think there might be a moment of truth in this where we have to decide where we're going," he said. The challenge for Mr. Trudeau is to explain the need for deeper ties with China in a way Canadians accept, he said.

Mr. Trudeau might have to decide first what Canadians will accept. Stephen Harper's government found it was hard to improve trade ties with China while diplomacy was chilly, but Mr. Trudeau might find that political warmth, especially if it comes with a suspicion that values are being bent, cools Canadians. Working on an extradition treaty with China could taint perception enough to scuttle the bigger deal, on trade.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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