Abacus Briefing: Free trade with China?

This Saturday, John Ivison reported that Prime Minister Trudeau was headed in China in December to open talks about a free trade agreement.

How do Canadians feel about China and a possible free trade agreement?

In January 2016, we explored public opinion on the Canada-China relationship for Teck Resources.

We found that Canadians recognize that China has become one of the world’s most important economic players and want to see Canada have a significant relationship with China when it comes to trade and investment flows.

This is not a view that is skewed by region: people across the country see the benefits of strong economic ties. Perhaps even more noticeable is that young Canadians are more open to strengthening our ties with China, as they will have the ability to influence policies and economic choices over the longer term.

However, as with most choices, Canadians also exhibit a degree of caution and prudence. This is not so much to do with China per se, as the majority believe that China is no less trustworthy than any other potential trading partner. Instead, Canadians are looking for the best of all possible worlds: more exports, but not necessarily more imports; healthy two-way investment flows, but ideally without seeing control of Canadian enterprises shifting to Chinese investors.

Consider this: More Canadians have an intensely negative view of the US government than the Chinese government.  Back in August, we asked Canadians their feelings about a number of different governments. And while we felt less intensively negative to the Chinese government than we do to the Russian or American governments, a majority (74%) tended to have negative views of the Chinese government.

And when we asked Canadians to compare China and the United States earlier this spring, majorities felt that China was doing more to try to maintain peace and avoid conflict, showing a better example of what world leadership should look like, and was doing more to grow the economy around the world.

Canadians generally think trade and globalization are good for the country.

And Canadians are generally predisposed to supporting trading. For example, in May we found that 73% feel that globalization including trade agreements will be more helpful than harmful to the prospects of Canada’s economy.  Moreover, more Canadians (58%) are “globalist” than “nationalist” (43%) in their general orientation. Sizeable proportions have particularly strong versions of these feelings: 24% could be called “ultra-globalist” and 16% “ultra-nationalist“. And immigration and diversity were stronger drivers of these attitudes than views around trade.

When it comes to the idea of a free trade deal with China, our research suggests a degree of openness that might not have been there a decade ago. Canadians will naturally have concerns about being competitive enough with Chinese companies, perhaps concerned with the nature of the Chinese government, but also recognize the potential economic upside is significant too.

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