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Baird aims to balance trade, human rights issues on China trip

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird makes an announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Harper government is fending off charges that it is sacrificing the promotion of human rights in the name of economic growth during Foreign Minister John Baird's ongoing trip to China.

The opposition is criticizing the government's changing strategy on China, which has evolved over the past five years to focus increasingly on trade and economic matters.

But the government insists its dealings are based on generating "strong interpersonal relationships" with government and business officials in China, with a constant emphasis on the promotion of human rights.

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Mr. Baird is meeting government officials, including Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, in Beijing on Monday. He goes to Shanghai on Tuesday to speak to groups of Chinese and Canadian business leaders, including executives of the China National Petroleum Corporation.

The government said the goal of the trip is to strike a balance between promoting trade issues and human rights in China, while keeping in mind that Ottawa's first priority is Canada's economic recovery.

"It's critical for our success going forward as a country, economically, to engage with one of the world's most important and fastest growing economies," said a senior government official on Sunday. "That can't be understated. But it's not at the expense of Canadian values and principles."

The federal official said Canada is looking to strengthen commercial, educational and technological ties with China, and that as part of these discussions, Canada will continue to press China to "implement and adhere to internationally recognized human-rights practices."

Mr. Baird's trip comes as links with China are growing stronger. For the first time, British Columbia's softwood exports with China have surpassed those to the United States, according to the provincial government. The value in shipments from B.C. to China for the first five months of this year has been record-breaking at 2.8 million cubic metres of timber, double last year's in both volume and value.

While trade is going up, Ottawa is trying to counter charges that it is putting less and less emphasis on human-rights issues, which were at the forefront of Ottawa's China strategy when Stephen Harper's Conservatives took power in 2006.

"There is a lack of coherence on China," said NDP MP and foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "When they started off, there was no engagement with China because of concerns over human rights. Now that's been replaced with everything being about the economy and avoiding the other issues."

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Relations between Canada and China are slowly warming after years in which Mr. Harper kept his distance from China because of Conservative support for Taiwan and Tibet, which earned the Prime Minister rebukes from Chinese officials and the state-controlled media when he finally travelled there in 2009.

Mr. Baird, the latest and perhaps most influential of Mr. Harper's many foreign ministers, has made a point of emphasizing the importance of China's rise as an economic and geopolitical power, and the Conservatives' determination to nurture a warmer relationship.

He first travelled to China as Minister of Transport, and this marks his first trip to the country as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Federal officials are presenting the visit as a "get-to-know-you" affair for Mr. Baird, who will continuously deal with Chinese issues in his new portfolio.

Mr. Dewar said he hopes that the Conservatives find a way to stay in constant contact with the Chinese and get rid of their rigid reputation on the file, saying that constructive engagement is the key to success.

"[Former U.S. president Richard]Nixon went to China, John Baird is going to China, we'll see what happens," Mr. Dewar said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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