B.C. businesses reconsidering their ties with China after the Meng and 2 Michaels affair

·3 min read
Tom Sundher of Sundher Timber Products is unsure how to proceed with his business dealings in China.  (Tanya Fletcher/CBC - image credit)
Tom Sundher of Sundher Timber Products is unsure how to proceed with his business dealings in China. (Tanya Fletcher/CBC - image credit)

Tom Sundher knows his timber.

He's spent 20 years buying logs from companies on British Columbia's coast, bringing them to mills and exporting them all over the world.

But the recent tension between Canada and China — and the swift release of two Canadians imprisoned in China after the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou came to a surprise end — have left him feeling uneasy about selling his Sundher Timber Products to the authoritarian country.

"I would favour India over China because I'm more comfortable there; because they're a more democratic country, there's rule of law," he said.

His local business association, the Surrey Board of Trade, is also urging business owners to reassess working in China.

Relations between the two countries remain unsettled after three years of diplomatic tensions brought on by the arrest of Meng in 2018 at Vancouver International Airport.

It might be some time before bilateral ties can mend, experts say — and for many, that leaves a cloud of uncertainty over business relationships with China.

"Canadian citizens are going to be making some more complicated calculations about what they're going to do inside China," said Paul Evans, a public policy professor at the University of British Columbia.

Uncertainty doing business

Surrey, part of Metro Vancouver, is home to more than half of B.C.'s manufacturers. Many of them do business with China.

Anita Huberman, president of the Surrey Board of Trade, said China is not a market to ignore — but she'd be hesitant to encourage her members to travel there on business trips, given the apparently arbitrary detainment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor soon after Meng's arrest on U.S. fraud charges.

Kovrig and Spavor were both working in China when they were detained, having been accused by Beijing of spying on authorities. They were released Sept. 24, just hours after an extradition case against Meng was dropped.

Huberman says the story of the two Michaels has become a cautionary tale for those looking for business opportunities in China.

"The uncertainties of even travelling to China around safety for a person that is in your workforce — what may happen to them?" she said.

Tanya Fletcher/CBC
Tanya Fletcher/CBC

She says the time has come for B.C. businesses to look at diversifying into other, more stable Asian markets like Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Huberman said there's an added ethical consideration to doing business with China in light of the country's treatment of its Uyghur minority, as well as the recent examples of so-called hostage diplomacy.

"I believe businesses are going to take a look at who they're doing business with and if they have the same values with which they run their business,'' she said.

Chris Helgren/Reuters
Chris Helgren/Reuters

Anger, disappointment, betrayal

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in the days after the release of Kovrig and Spavor that Canada's "eyes are wide open" when it comes to normalizing relations with China.

He said the government is now following a four-fold approach to China: "coexist," "compete," "co-operate," and "challenge."

But foreign policy experts say it may take time for Canada's re-elected Liberal government to plot what happens next with Beijing.

Evans is firm when he says it's unlikely Canada-China relations will ever return with the same fervour as before Meng's arrest.

"The wounds of these last three years are considerable. The anger is there, the disappointment, the sense of betrayal on the Canadian side and a little bit on the Chinese side, too," he said.

However long it takes to mend relations, it's clear any delays will have an impact on business ambitions.

"I still think that between Canada, the U.S., and China, we have to work this out because there's a huge dependence on each other," said Sundher.

But he says his timber products are in high demand in the U.S. and around the world, and he's already exporting most of his products to Japan, Pakistan and Europe.

Business is business and there'll be no love lost between him and China.

"I'm not hostage to one market," he said.

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