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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks towards China's President Hu Jintao prior to the first session of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Hanoi Vietnam on Nov. 18, 2006. (TOM HANSON/CP)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks towards China's President Hu Jintao prior to the first session of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Hanoi Vietnam on Nov. 18, 2006. (TOM HANSON/CP)

How Harper’s foreign policy focus evolved from human rights to the ‘almighty dollar’ Add to ...

On Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first official trip to Asia in 2006, he was famously denied a face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Asked why, Mr. Harper hinted the Chinese side had tried to restrict the conversation the two leaders would have to trade, and trade alone. That was something Mr. Harper couldn’t and wouldn’t agree to.

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“I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values,” the prime minister told reporters travelling with him to that year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit. Then came the clip that sounded like a new prime minister defining his foreign policy: “They don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

Mr. Harper probably intended the line, at least in part, as a dig at the CEO-stocked “Team Canada” trade missions that his predecessors Jean Chretien and Paul Martin had led to Beijing and elsewhere. When in opposition, he had castigated the Liberal government for appeasing dictators by serving “narrow business interests.”

Mr. Harper’s stand excited some human rights groups – led by the Taiwan and Tibet lobbies – who thought they finally had a prime minister willing to fight in their corner.

The stance was incomprehensible to the Chinese leadership, whose own foreign policy was based on non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Outside its immediate neighbourhood (where territorial disputes and historical grievances make things complicated), Beijing’s foreign policy boils down to: do what you will to your own populations, we’re just here to trade. It’s a stance that won China a lot of friends in parts of the developing world that had grown tired of being lectured by the United States and Europe.

Within three years of that “almighty dollar” comment, Mr. Harper reversed course in his China policy, under pressure from Canadian businesses who claimed the Conservative government’s principles were costing them contracts. By 2011, Mr. Harper had buried the human-rights agenda so deeply that he refused to even utter the name of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while he was on an official visit to China. It was all business, all the time. He got a long-awaited investment pact, and a pair of pandas, as a reward.

Now that trade-first and trade-only approach – reminiscent of Beijing’s own policy – is officially a cornerstone of how Canada will deal with the rest of the world too.

“This new plan will play to our strengths and ensure that all of Canada’s diplomatic assets are harnessed to support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors,” read Wednesday’s press release from Trade Minister Ed Fast’s office, announcing what the government calls its Global Markets Action Plan.

In reality, the Global Markets Action Plan is simply a statement of what had already come to pass. Canadian diplomats at stations around the world have for years joked they were all trade commissioners now.

When the Conservative government does trot out its once-dear human-rights rhetoric, it’s usually on files where there are votes to be won at home and only a tiny amount of trade at risk.

We can sever ties with Iran – and maintain sanctions even as the rest of the world moves to ease them – because there were was no economic relationship to speak of anyway, and it pleases the pro-Israel lobby in Canada. We can bash Sri Lanka’s human rights record and boycott the Commonwealth summit there, because it wins Tamil votes in Toronto at a very limited cost to the Canadian economy. (Canadian exports to Sri Lanka were $321.8-million last year, making it Canada’s 49th largest export market. Iran ranked 81st.)

Earlier this month, when Foreign Minister John Baird released a broadside attacking the lack of progress in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s first 100 days in power – after Mr. Rouhani was elected by the country’s hopeful moderates – he did so while en route to Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates, two oil-rich dictatorships where people have less say in how they’re governed than Iranians do.

“The Iranian leadership should prohibit by law all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity and gender,” Mr. Baird wrote three weeks ago in the National Post. And then on Wednesday his government declared Saudi Arabia – where discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity and especially gender is the norm and the law – to be an “emerging market” and a foreign policy priority.

Russia is another country on the new list of priority markets diplomats are expected to pay special attention to. That’s another switch, nearly as big as the Conservative government’s reversal on China. Mr. Harper is primarily known in Moscow as the only G-8 leader who has never paid President Vladimir Putin an official visit, a situation that apparently results from the two men not liking each other very much.

No matter. Mr. Harper eventually learned to smile and say little while shaking hands with Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People. He can do the same with Mr. Putin in the Kremlin.

Seven years on from promising not to sell Canadian values out to the almighty dollar, doing exactly that is now more or less our official foreign policy. Call it Mr. Harper’s Chinese lesson.

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