Whatever the reason behind Obama not getting the red carpet treatment in Hangzhou, there’s one leader who was guaranteed it: ‘Little Potato’. Or, as you might know him, Justin Trudeau. The pronunciation of Trudeau sounds similar to the Mandarin word for potato, and Chinese media’s primary frame of reference for him is through his father Pierre (Big Potato was friendly with China’s communist leadership years before the rest of the West felt ready to engage). Their other reference point is that he is the handsome ‘APEC hottie’, so perhaps Hot Little Potato is more accurate.
His predecessor Stephen Harper, who stepped down as an MP last week, would never have earned such an affectionate nickname. That’s partly because of his style, or lack of: Trudeau did more populist photo ops and selfies in his first month as PM (including a Vogue shoot) as Harper did in nearly nine years. But it was also because of his substance: Harper was known to be Sino-sceptic. He warmed up later in his term on the economic front, but Harper’s image there was always tinged by his instinctive reticence and early interventions on sensitive issues. This instinct seems to be one of several parallels between Theresa May and him.
As Trudeau will one day discover – not unlike Obama before him – foreign popularity is not the only metric to worry about. The only world leader who comes close to his level of adulation from Chinese netizens is Vladimir Putin. The same Putin, you may recall, who was told by Harper at a previous G20 Summit: ‘I guess I’ll shake your hand, but you need to get out of Ukraine’.
Trudeau will also have to factor in domestic disquiet, otherwise his desire to press the ‘reset’ button on relations with China could be seen more as hitting ‘mute’. One of Justin Trudeau’s most controversial statements in opposition was to say he admired what he called ‘China’s basic dictatorship’, because it enabled them to get things done on the economy and environment. Learning from this, he did use a business speech this week to urge China to do more on human rights, albeit in a gentle fashion.
At the other end of spectrum, when the Canadian Conservatives were in opposition, Jason Kenney (well-known as being behind Harper’s successful courting of ethnic groups) took advantage of a government trade trip to visit the family of Zhao Ziyang – a recently deceased reformist who was purged for being critical of Maoist policies. His diplomatic minders were as horrified as the authorities. Kenney later regaled to me how, on his next trip to China, the engine of his car suddenly caught fire on the way towards an official meeting. ‘How was your journey…?’ his interlocutor inquired, when he eventually arrived at the ministry.
It’s always more easy for commentators to choose the principled path than for leaders to do so. That’s their job. If, say, Trudeau had expressed concern about the pre-Summit church closures in Hangzhou, would he have secured an intriguing access deal to Ali Baba, China’s online marketplace? What’s the price of principle here? That constant balance between access and principle is at the heart of both diplomacy and politics. But one area where that price of silence will always be harder to justify is on security.
Canada was recently a victim of exactly the kind of high-profile cyber-espionage that Nick Timothy, one of Theresa May’s most senior advisors, warned about last year. I was working for the Canadian foreign minister at the time and, as it happened, the accusation of China’s involvement came out overnight just hours before a bilateral with his counterpart in Beijing. After an emergency pow-wow over coffee, we decided that the meeting should go ahead, but that the issue of security should be raised at the start in a ‘full and frank’ manner. Then we got on with the rest of what was still a pretty constructive trip.
Would Trudeau have even mentioned the hack? Would his somewhat meek new foreign minister have pointed at the elephant standing on the conference table? Or would they have merely made small-talk about people-to-people ties? I think I know the answer. I also think I know what our own Home Secretary-turned-PM would have done too.
Samuel Coates was a special adviser to former Canadian foreign minister John Baird