Things have changed since John Baird last went to China – and now the Foreign Affairs Minister is going to give a nudge to relations after something of a pause.
It is his first trip since the Conservative government tightened rules for Chinese investment, signalling new scrutiny on the state-run companies seeking to buy Canadian oil and resource operations. And in the meantime, the ranks of Chinese political leadership have been transformed.
Mr. Baird’s long trip to Asia, his eighth as foreign minister, is a signal of the diplomatic attention Ottawa now devotes to the rising economic powers of East Asia. It includes stops in Hong Kong on the weekend and in Brunei on Monday and Tuesday, for the summit of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc of Southeast Asian nations – part of gradual courtship of an increasingly important region.
But in China, Mr. Baird will get to see how the new leadership feels about the signals the Harper government sent last year – when the controversial, $15.1-billion Chinese takeover of major Alberta oil company Nexen Inc. was approved, but only with a caveat that further deals would face a rough ride.
And China’s political leadership has been consumed for most of the past year with its own transition – new President Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao, and a new premier, state council and cabinet are now in place.
Both factors mean there has been something of a pause in the efforts to improve Canada-China ties that have been gaining steam since 2008, when the Harper government shifted its approach to Beijing in an effort to thaw relations that were decidedly chilly.
Now Mr. Baird is making a diplomatically significant trip to nudge ties along with new leaders, said Gordon Houlden, the director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute and a former senior Canadian diplomat. “China’s not going anywhere, so you have to re-engage in some fashion,” he said.
Senior Chinese leaders will be asking about the restrictions on investment, but they have signalled they are not viewing it as a major dispute. “I’m sure he’ll be queried closely about those,” Mr. Houlden said. “Quizzed, but not taken to task.”
Mr. Baird is not the first Canadian minister to visit since the change in leadership – both Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Trade Minister Ed Fast went to China to see their new counterparts this spring. Mr. Baird’s visit, including stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Chengdu, will include a series of meetings with high-level political leaders.
Mr. Baird will meet with his new counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as well as former foreign minister Yang Jiechi, now a state councillor – a cut above a cabinet minister. Aides said he is also expected to meet Zhang Gaoli, the first vice-premier.
“That’s a pretty impressive lineup, and I think it shows some favour towards us,” Mr. Houlden said.
But there are issues that linger in the background. The Nexen takeover by Chinese state-controlled firm CNOOC Ltd. sparked political angst in Canada about China’s role in the Canadian economy.
The Harper government, which signed a long-awaited investment-protection agreement last year – and trumpeted its benefits for Canada – still has not ratified the deal, which was put to Parliament in September. Mr. Harper’s cabinet must ratify the agreement, but has not done so. That agreement has been challenged in court by the Hupacasath First Nation in British Columbia, which argues the federal government failed to consult First Nations.
But the political backlash over the Nexen deal has clearly spooked the governing Tories, who must deal with a segment of their own caucus of MPs, and their political base, which is wary of Chinese involvement in Canada.
A spokesman for Mr. Fast, Rudy Husny, did not offer any explanation for why the cabinet has not ratified the investment agreement.