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                  Ontario and China in the 21st Century:

           Canada's Most Populous Province Pivots To Asia    

 

By Randall White

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has recently returned from a westward trip to China to engage with the somewhat shaky new Chinese economic miracle of the early 21st century, and in pursuit of similar east-west connections.

The current official rhetoric from Queen’s Park claims that China is now Ontario’s second-largest foreign trading partner after the United States. That is only half-true. In 2014 China was Ontario’s second largest partner for goods imports — 57% came from the USA, and just under 12% from China. Strictly speaking, Ontario’s second-largest partner for goods exports in 2014 was the United Kingdom. It accounted for more than 6% of the total. (A massive 79% of the goods we produce continues to be sold due south, to the United States.) China and the still separately calculated Hong Kong together accounted for only 3% of Ontario goods exports. 

But there have long been connections between Canada and China.

Much early French commercial interest in what is now Ontario flowed from a hypothesized but quite mistaken proximity to the wonders of China under the Ming dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

The name of present-day Lachine on the island of Montreal — a historic point of departure for fur-trade canoe trips westward — actually derives from the French for China, La Chine.

More currently, but in a bow to the first Canadian resource economy of the fur trade, also pioneered by the historic French regime, “Raw furskins” accounted for the single largest category of goods exports from Ontario to China in 2014! 

This alone might suggest a need for the kind of updating sought by Premier Wynne’s recent trade mission. 

In any case the mission — the second effort of its sort during Kathleen Wynne’s premiership so far — seems to have worked well enough. To cite a headline from the Niagara Falls Review: “China trip 'huge success': Diodati.”

The “Diodati” here refers to Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati, who was part of the mission. He was particularly pleased that the real-estate arm of the Chinese government announced it will be a shareholder in a $1-billion development proposed by China-based GR Investments for 484 acres near the Thundering Waters Golf Club in Niagara Falls.

North Americans may have decided that the world’s greatest waterfall by volume is passé. But for tourists from Asia and elsewhere it remains an authentic world-class destination. 

All told, according to the official press release, the mission concluded agreements with an estimated total value of $2.5 billion. And all this is expected to create 1,700 jobs in Ontario.

To take two further examples, Mississauga-headquartered “Hydrogenics" is cited as signing four certified integrator agreements. These would supply fuel cell technology for integration into zero-emission public transport buses. And China Telecom Group Best Tone Information Co. Ltd. signed an agreement for food and Canadian nutritional products to be imported to China. 

As a sign of just how risky global affairs can be nowadays, Premier Wynne’s second trade mission to China ended on Friday November 13 — the same day as the appalling terrorist attacks in Paris, France.  

As noted by Canada’s new federal finance minister Bill Morneau, China’s “pace of growth” at the moment is certainly slowing down. "They’re having a really material impact on global growth, so it’s something to watch,” he said.

Then there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and how it fits into President Barack Obama’s aspiring “pivot to Asia” in American foreign policy. Except China is not part of the TPP!  

But Premier Wynne seems to be taking away one final message: “This is not the first time that I’ve had it said to me: people need to know who you are, what your brand is, and you need to talk about yourself more ... We need to be much clearer about who we are.”

You can see this problem up close when you look at the website of Hydrogenics — one of the Ontario firms on the China trade mission that did quite well.  It points out that “Hydrogenics Corporate headquarters are located in Mississauga, Canada with manufacturing facilities located in Germany and Belgium.” 

Note Ontario isn't even mentioned. That highlights the problem that somewhere between “Mississauga” and “Canada” the province of Ontario itself and its interests keep getting lost.  And it doesn't help that the province itself seems to be unclear of its place.  Note this recent message from Premier Wynne on Facebook: “What does Ontario culture mean to you? Your ideas will help us design Ontario’s first-ever Culture Strategy. ontario.ca/culturetalks.” 

Trying to get to China has been a recurrent theme of Ontario culture for the past 400 years or more, from the Ottawa River to the Lake of the Woods, and the Great Lakes to Hudson’s Bay.  But in the end, thanks to various new technologies (and demographics), we probably are closer today than ever before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : November 24, 2015

View all of Randall White's columns
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