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A Nexen oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., is seen in this aerial photograph on July 10, 2012. The federal government approved Nexen Inc.’s $15.1-billion takeover by China's CNOOC Ltd. in 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A Nexen oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., is seen in this aerial photograph on July 10, 2012. The federal government approved Nexen Inc.’s $15.1-billion takeover by China's CNOOC Ltd. in 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Oil drowns other diplomatic issues for Canadians in Beijing Add to ...

The pleasantries were brief, conducted beneath a ceiling bursting with crystal flower-petal lights in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. “I believe that your visit will help raise this relationship to a higher level,” said a smiling Li Keqiang, China’s Premier, as he launched the first formal state meeting with a Canadian governor-general since 1994. Sitting across the table from the second most powerful man in China, David Johnston wasted little time in trying to profit from the welcome. Time, in the 30-minute meeting, was short.

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“The objectives of our visit are very clear, Mr. Premier,” he said. “First of all, we would like to urge you to consider a visit to Canada whenever and as soon as you possibly can.”

And so began the business of attempting to tease out a better relationship with the rising superpower, amid several weeks of intensive Canadian speech-making, eating, drinking, handshaking and, above all, grasping for better access to the world’s second-largest economy.

The denuded landscapes of the oil sands could hardly be more distant from the gilded halls of Beijing’s central locus of power. But they have risen to the top of a diplomatic agenda that now dominates Canada’s conversations with China. Largely forgotten are the issues of religious freedom and minority rights that once sat high on the federal government’s China agenda, including the Canadians who continue to languish in Chinese jails as victims of questionable legal processes. Their fate has faded from an Ottawa gaze trained on the potential dollars at stake in new flows of oil and gas across the Pacific.

Energy has “become the 80 per cent in a 100-per-cent relationship,” said Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes, another Canadian in Beijing Friday. Loading bitumen and chilled gas onto China-bound tankers is “the opportunity of a lifetime for this generation of Canadians,” he said.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who also attended the meeting with Mr. Li, found himself facing questions not just about Canada’s energy reserves, but also the speed with which it could one day deliver those to China.

“They wanted to know how we were doing” on energy export plans, he said. The questions surrounded “the timing of it, that sort of thing,” he said.

There was a time when Canadian diplomacy in China looked very different. In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed Canada as not the type of country to mute its defence of mistreated citizens so that “maybe some day we’ll be able to sell more goods there.”

This week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in an interview that Canada has since sought more “balance” in its relations with China. Human-rights concerns have not been abandoned, he argued: “I met with the vice foreign minister and amongst other things raised the case of the two Canadians who are on death row here. So we regularly do that.”

But, he added, “the economy, prosperity are the number one focus of the government.”

Some see that as a loss for Canada, whose history of diversity could position it to play an important role in a place where civic institutions are beginning to gain some ground.

In China today, “there’s this awareness that building civil society is important for the economic elite. And Canada has to be part of that partnership,” said John Gruetzner, a long-time business consultant in China. He faults Canada for “capitulating” on that imperative in favour of a diplomatic agenda that is “driven by one specific goal, which is to find a market for oil.”

The Chinese public, for its part, has barely registered the Canadian diplomatic push in China. The Governor-General’s arrival was marked with a formal welcoming ceremony and a 21-gun salute that sounded from Tiananmen Square. But Mr. Johnston arrived on a week that also saw London Mayor Boris Johnson in Beijing, where he hopped on a bicycle, rode the subway and met with a popular dating-show host. For his common touch, BoJo, as he is often called, rocketed to the second most-searched term on Weibo, the Chinese social networking site. The Canadians, whose motorcade whizzed down roads cleared of traffic, went largely unremarked.

There is a certain irony that even on the energy file, Canada appears to be losing ground to others. Among the first foreign trips of Chinese President Xi Jinping was a 10-day tour through Central Asia, where billions of dollars in deals will create rapid growth in the volume of energy flowing to China from those countries. Natural-gas-thirsty South Korea, meanwhile, has warned that Canada risks losing out. “I got a very clear message from some leadership in Korea that said, ‘We’re almost moving on, Canada. We have other choices and we’re pursuing them,’” Mr. Hughes said.

As for Mr. Johnston’s request for a state visit to Canada: though the proposal was warmly received, that, too, yielded no firm pledge.

Follow on Twitter: @nvanderklippe

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