China's top diplomat in Vancouver says Canada needs to diversify its exports away from the United States and toward Asian markets, and that British Columbians need to make up their minds about whether they truly want to be the country's Asia-Pacific gateway.
"If you just rely on one market, you'll be quite vulnerable," says Consul General Liu Fei in an interview with The Globe and Mail at China's Vancouver consulate. "Canada still has one big trade partner, and has not yet balanced that trade with other countries."
Ms. Liu spoke just before Enbridge got conditional approval from the federal government to move ahead with the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would ship crude oil from Alberta to the B.C. coast for export to Asia. She stressed that the pipeline would be a major move toward increasing economic ties with fast-growing Asian economies.
"A pipeline is one of the ways to expand trade with Asia. Without a pipeline you can't get things out of the interior. You can't get products to the ports and especially to Asian markets," Ms. Liu said. "It very much depends on people's thinking here. If people still want to stick to the U.S., that's one way … [But] B.C.'s the western part of the country, the Asia-Pacific gateway. People know it's the Asia-Pacific gateway, but when it comes to the reality, they have a different [perspective]."
Ms. Liu's comments, which also touched on natural gas exports, offer a localized glimpse at the perspective from the other side of the Pacific, where many business and political leaders would like more access to Canada's natural resources but are occasionally perplexed by drawn-out negotiations between various levels of government and groups such as First Nations.
Indeed, as Enbridge praised the federal approval – and pledged to meet the 209 conditions set out by the National Energy Board, as well as five laid down by B.C. – First Nations groups and environmentalists began to detail their renewed opposition, pledging the pipeline will never be built. Protests were planned, some for that day, and a group of First Nations announced they would fight the pipeline in the courts.
"Enbridge's Northern Gateway tanker and pipeline project exposes all communities from Alberta to the Pacific Coast to the undeniable risk of pipeline and supertanker oil spills," the groups said in a statement.
Ms. Liu said opposition is to be expected, given the environmental risks, but she maintained that people would support the project if the government ensured the pipeline was built and operated safely. "People worry about it leaking, the pollution. That's understandable, because with all industry there will always be pollution, some accidents, some damages," she said.
"To be well prepared is very important. … The government needs to do more for safety. Then people will feel better, more comfortable, to accept these projects."
At the same time, Ms. Liu suggested that the B.C. government was overreaching a bit on its rhetoric surrounding trade with China. She said that when she arrived, the breadth of B.C. exports to China – such as timber or cherries – was smaller than she expected. And despite B.C. Premier Christy Clark's high-profile push to export liquefied natural gas from Kitimat, B.C., and other coastal terminals to Asia, Ms. Liu noted that there is still barely anything to show for it – and, as with Northern Gateway, there is local opposition to the plan. However, Ms. Liu did note it is important to follow local negotiation practices, and said she does understand that it is important to first consult with Canada's First Nations.
"I've been to Kitimat, [to] Prince Rupert. Most of the work sites still are only at a very basic stage. They're still cleaning the ground and designing. It might take two or three years to get the products out," she said. "We would like to wait and see as a buyer. Sometimes you want to wait for the good price. So people are talking about China as one of the buyers, but it is too early to say we're a buyer, because you haven't got the product … But we do have interest."