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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) shakes hands with China's President Hu Jintao in Harper's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 24, 2010. (John Major/REUTERS)
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) shakes hands with China's President Hu Jintao in Harper's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 24, 2010. (John Major/REUTERS)

Stephen Harper plans China trip to strengthen ties Add to ...

Stephen Harper will make his second visit to China in November to set a new tone for political and economic ties with Beijing.

The visit will be a centrepiece in Mr. Harper’s extensive travels to expand ties with emerging economies as slow growth and financial-market turmoil cast Canadian reliance on exports to the United States into doubt.

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Mr. Harper made his first visit to China in 2009 as part of efforts to warm relations, and even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao remarked then it was overdue. Chinese President Hu Jintao returned the favour with a visit to Canada last year, and Mr. Harper’s second trip establishes a pattern of regular top-level visits, which is deemed essential to forging stronger ties.

Canada's decision in July to return alleged smuggler Lai Changxing to China also helped to thaw relations.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, Andrew MacDougall, said he could not confirm Mr. Harper’s plans to visit China, but sources said it is set for November.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird visited China in July, and described it as a “strategic partner,” a “friend” and an “ally,” a barometer of how the tone has changed. He was welcomed by senior Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to be the next Chinese premier.

Now, with the repair job essentially done, Mr. Harper’s next challenge is to set a new agenda for ties with the rising economic and political superpower, underscored in recent weeks by a larger-than-expected trade surplus.

“Now we can get down to business,” said David Emerson, Mr. Harper’s former foreign and trade minister, now a senior advisor with CAI Private Equity.

But it won’t be simple. Mr. Harper faces pressure to seal a long-sought investment-protection deal, a need to grapple with increasing flows of people, and a question mark over how Canada will approach China’s record on human rights.

Mr. Harper, now on a tour of Latin America, is making relations with big emerging economies a key focus in his new majority-government mandate. This fall, the emphasis will be on Asia and the Pacific.

He’s slated to attend summits of Commonwealth leaders in Australia and Asia-Pacific leaders in Hawaii, and is expected to tack on visits to other Asian countries, including Mongolia and possibly Thailand and Indonesia. But the visit to China will be a key marker of Mr. Harper’s foreign policy.

After he took power in 2006, Mr. Harper kept political relations with China on the back burner, and issued sharp criticism on human-rights cases that chilled ties and slowed deals with Beijing.

The Harper government has worked to repair ties since 2008, quieting criticism and sending ministers to China before and after Mr. Harper’s visit in 2009, when Beijing finally offered Canada approved-destination status to open the door to more Chinese tourism. Ottawa approved a series of Chinese investments in Canadian oil and mining. Chinese leaders, who saw Mr. Harper change course before the 2008 financial crisis accentuated China’s rise as an economic power, now see him as a leader with a long-term view – someone with whom they can do business.

In July, nine days before Mr. Baird’s visit to China, a Federal Court judge cleared another major long-standing irritant for Beijing when it ordered Mr. Lai back to China after 11 years in Canada on the basis of a new assessment that he would not face torture.

But with obstacles cleared, Mr. Harper’s government still faces questions about whether it has a way to approach China on human rights – whether the Prime Minister will make public statements about dissidents, or return to closed-door talks the Conservatives dropped in 2006.

And the pressure to strike new deals to keep up with other countries is increasing. Mr. Emerson said Canada must strike some formal trade-and-investment arrangements. “At a bare minimum, we need an investment-protection agreement with China,” he said.

Such a deal, which would protect Canadian businesses from contracts being voided or arbitrary regulations imposed by international arbitration, is at the top of Ottawa’s agenda. But Charles Burton, a Brock University China scholar, said China will want better guarantees in return that state-owned Chinese companies can buy into Canadian oil and mining, raising concerns they might act not as market companies, but ship Canadian resources back to China to fuel growth.

Mr. Harper also must find ways to keep up with expanding two-way flows of people – business people, researchers, students and tourists – and as a first step, to expand resources in China to process visas. “Our biggest challenge is the bottleneck in the visa process,” said David Goldstein, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.

That, Mr. Burton argues, reflects a broader problem: Canada needs the market, but also expertise and resources on immigration, trade and countering industrial espionage. “We need to allocate enough resources to meet the China challenge.”

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