02/06/2012 05:08 EST | Updated 04/07/2012 05:12 EDT

The Prime Minister and Lady Edith Go to China

In the first season of the British miniseries, Downton Abbey, middle sister Lady Edith Crawley vents her frustration with her older sister, Lady Mary, by writing to the Turkish ambassador in London to pass along a rumor that will embroil Mary in a scandal and damage her reputation. It is spiteful, but Edith despairs of her own prospects as long as her sister keeps indecisively toying with suitors, only showing an interest when Edith fancies one of them for herself.

Stephen Harper this week heads to China for an official visit and to discuss potential Canadian oil sales. The trip comes on the heels of President Obama's decision to refuse a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline which would have taken more Canadian oil to the U.S. market via refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

When news of Harper's trip hit Washington, there followed a flurry of editorial comment suggesting that Obama had driven Canada away, at least in part, to please fickle domestic special interests rather than the best interests of the country. Republican presidential candidates and Members of Congress condemned the Obama administration, and the business community began challenging the president's decision with ads. Will the United States try to block Canada's courtship of China out of jealousy, or spite?

The United States has its own delicate courtship of China underway, and the Keystone decision risks upsetting a bipartisan strategy to coax China to continue a "peaceful rise" toward a capitalist, Western-oriented economy. The Obama administration has continued and extended a grand strategy that began during the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. As Walter Russell Mead wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, the United States is simultaneously shoring up its military alliances with India, Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, and Japan while pursuing an expanded Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation on economic matters.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The United States has been pursuing security for trade and commerce and tackling regulation (which has become the most significant non-tariff barrier to greater world trade) with countries around the world. Under the Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America, also known as the SPP, the G.W. Bush administration launched talks of this type with Canada and Mexico. The Obama administration put Canada and Mexico on separate tracks, with Canada-U.S. setting up the Beyond The Border Working Group and the Regulatory Cooperation Council in 2011.

In Asia, the U.S. strategy is to deter any aggressive moves by China with a ring of allies whose combined naval and air power backed by U.S. military might will keep the Asian balance of power stable. At the same time, the TPP talks (which do not include China) are intended to offer China a way to continue its peaceful economic rise. Now that China is a member of the World Trade Organization, membership in something new, with additional preconditions, is seen as necessary to keep China moving in the direction of free markets and capitalism.

So far, the TPP has included only relatively small economies: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States. At the 2011 APEC summit in Honolulu, President Obama convinced the others to extend an invitation to Canada, Japan, and Mexico to join the TPP, which would dramatically strengthen the group, overriding the objections of New Zealand, which opposed the invitation to Canada in particular, due to its supply management policies in agriculture.

Ordinarily it might be expected that Canada would jump on the U.S. strategic bandwagon in Asia, entering the TPP negotiations and improving naval and other linkages to U.S. allies in the Pacific. Canadian interests could be well-served by entering through doors opened by the United States that would give Canada better access, a greater chance of concessions, and a firmer position in the region than it could accomplish on its own. This was Canada's approach to Cold War Europe, and to Mexico in NAFTA. At the same time, the United States gains legitimacy for its leadership and its efforts when Canada joins them in support.

Yet for Harper to embrace such a course there would need to be greater trust between his government and the Obama administration. Like Lady Edith, Prime Minister Harper must feel frustrated that Obama expects him to stand aside while the U.S. courts China and simultaneously wait around for a decision on Keystone. Worse still, there is the fear that Chinese interest in Canada is only a ploy, Beijing using Ottawa to spark Obama's jealousy and get Washington's attention.

Will Harper choose spite over strategy? Obama's high-handedness and seeming indifference to Canadian interests could redound against U.S. ambitions for China. As an ally, Canada can invaluable in Asia. Like an older sister to a middle sister, the United States cannot act as though Canada has no dreams or feelings of its own. U.S. advantages and prerogatives have their limits and must not be abused. For as a rival, Canada can do serious damage, especially if underestimated and scorned.