China-Canada Dialogue

China-Canada Dialogue

A recent Globe and Mail story about the “China-Canada Track Two Dialogue” was a rare reveal of the kinds of dialogue that go on quietly around the world.  Even more revealing were comments about the participation and content of that meeting.


Those comments indicate that this dialogue is not as much a Track Two as a high-level Chinese lobbying campaign.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  But it is essential to be careful in how one characterizes these discussions, lest anyone be under illusions.

Track Two Diplomacy brings together influential but relatively free-thinking individuals for quiet, off-the-record, unofficial dialogues.  These meetings, which are usually facilitated by an expert in the running of such dialogues, take what is called the “Problem-Solving” approach; they seek to assist the participants in stepping back from fruitlessly repeating official positions and entering into a discourse over new ways of looking at the issue.  

Such new ideas are then fed into the official process – where they can prove helpful if and when officials have reached a point where they want to explore new possibilities.  There are many examples of these kinds of dialogues having had an impact: South Africa before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison; Mozambique in the 1990s; the first, tentative discussions between the British and the IRA in Northern Ireland; Israeli-Palestinian talks over several decades; the work of the Pugwash Conferences to stimulate discussions on arms control between experts from East and West during the Cold War; discussions between Iran and the US before the signing of the nuclear deal.  The list goes on.

However, a key to understanding these dialogues is that they (maybe not right away, but eventually) feature an authentic give-and-take atmosphere.  The discussions are tough, but no one has a “this is my position; take it or leave it” attitude.  Over many meetings, the participants develop new understandings of the issues, of the other side and themselves.     

Some call these discussions “back-channels.”  This is a related but slightly different concept to Track Two.  Back channels are places where countries with strained relations trade ideas and negotiate secretly to see if they can develop ways forward.  But the participants are officials who are there at the behest of their countries.  

The recent China-Canada meeting seems to have been neither a Track Two nor a back-channel based on the media reports. Instead, it was a group of Chinese officials (even if some of them had unofficial titles) telling a group of influential Canadians what Ottawa needs to do to get on China’s good side and not being much interested in hearing what the Canadians thought.  The Chinese do this a lot.  Having taken part in numerous “Track Two” dialogues involving Chinese participation in Asia and South Asia, it has been my experience that the people Beijing sends to such meetings are present only to deliver a message and not to engage in a discussion.

Some might say that this invalidates the utility of such meetings, but we should not be so hasty. Indeed, it invalidates their utility as examples of Track Two, but opening doors to real communication takes time.  There have been cases where dialogues of this kind actually did become a Track Two after the political situation had shifted.  

Perhaps this China-Canada dialogue will meet such a useful fate eventually.

Over many years, for example, there were several Iran-US dialogues.  I ran a few of them and participated in others.  For much of the time, they were somewhat like the China-Canada Track Two; the Iranians sent people to make statements and not much else.  

This had a certain if limited purpose; hearing ideas from the source is better than hearing them a second or third hand. The Iranians usually went home to report that their lines weren’t being bought by the people they most hoped to influence.  Maybe that helped to bring about change in Tehran in some small way; difficult to say.

However, when the stars aligned during the second Obama term and the leadership of both countries finally became serious about negotiating a nuclear deal, a few of these long-standing Track Twos blossomed into something different.  Participation patterns changed quickly, and they became places where serious contributions were made to developing ideas that made their way into the eventual official negotiations.  Having been part of some of this, I saw it work.

Had the Iran-US Track Two dialogues been wrapped up during the lean years, when they were little more than forums for statements, these channels would not have existed when the need for them became acute.

Perhaps this China-Canada dialogue will meet such a useful fate eventually.  It seems unlikely now, but so did the end of apartheid in South Africa and the end of the Cold War itself until just before those things happened.  In the meantime, keeping channels open is no bad thing.  

So long as no one on either side is under any illusions as to what is going on. 

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