Jack Austin: Canada-China Trade Pioneer Urges Focus on Far East
This article appeared in Business in Vancouver on February 13, 2018. The Honourable Jack Austin, P.C., C.M., O.B.C., Q.C., is the Honourary Advisory Chair of CCBC’s British Columbia Advisory Council. To read the full article at BIV.com, please click on the link below.
by Chuck Chiang
Austin’s work on the China file dates back to as early as 1971, when he was a deputy minister of energy, mines and resources and took part in Canada’s first trade mission to China. Since then, he has spearheaded efforts like former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s “Team Canada” economic outreach to Beijing in the early 1990s.
Looking back, Austin is incredulous about the pace of development in China over his tenure in Ottawa, which ended in 2007 when he retired from the Senate.
“In 1971, to get to Beijing, we flew to Hong Kong and took the train to the Chinese border, and Shenzhen was a little fishing village,” Austin recounted from his Vancouver office. “When we presented our passports, there were no facilities there. We were just out in the open. Walking the streets of Guangzhou, it was China from the 1800s, with two-storey buildings and people sitting on the streets doing business and living their lives. Today, any Chinese city has among the best infrastructure in the world and the finest architecture. And no one – including the Chinese – could have seen China’s success in building a modern economy for a billion people in the shortest time in history.”
It is exactly because of that rapid development that the Canada-China bilateral free-trade agreement – despite going through ups and downs in the past few months with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s December visit to Beijing failing to secure a formal start to talks – should continue to be among Ottawa’s prime agendas, Austin said. He urged Canadians to embrace what he envisions as a crucial link in the chain of Canada’s economic well-being.
“The important thing – and Canadians don’t always keep this in mind – is that Canada is a trading nation,” he said. “We earn half our GDP from international trade; admittedly, three-quarters of that is with the United States, but we need trade because we don’t have a big domestic market…. For a while, we thought that we can make the United States part of our domestic market through [the North American Free Trade Agreement], but that is not proving to be the case in the way we’d like it to be.
“So the reality for Canada is we must trade, and we must trade with those who build our economy, and that’s why China is a very significant No. 2 priority in our trade strategy. We need to learn how to sell into that market, and that’s why you want a bilateral agreement.”