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Baird pushed Ottawa-Beijing relations toward trade, away from human rights

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, left, is greeted by his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi during his visit to China's Foreign Ministry office in Beijing, China, Monday, July 18, 2011.

Andy Wong/The Associated Press

After the early years of the Harper government's deep skepticism on China, John Baird played an important role in the dramatic subsequent pivot to seeking warmer and more profitable relations with the Asian giant. He made his first major bilateral trip as foreign minister to China, a country he returned to at least another nine times in that role, calling Asia a "national imperative" for Canadian trade.

In China, he travelled to numerous smaller cities outside Beijing, telling The Globe and Mail in a 2013 interview that "getting to know the next generation of leadership is pretty important," including at a provincial level, where numerous decisions are made that affect Canadian trade interests.

But Mr. Baird also faced criticism for pursuing a trade agenda with China to the detriment of taking a principled stand against its abuses of personal freedoms and human rights. He offered little public criticism of China, saying instead that he wanted to "rebalance" Ottawa's relationship with Beijing toward friendlier topics.

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In a speech in late November, 2014, about online freedom, he warned about the perils of countries working to balkanize the Internet and turn it into what he called the "splinternet." China is the leading practitioner of Internet splintering, but Mr. Baird did not mention the country once in his speech.

He argued, however, that in China "you don't protest, you participate," saying he was diligent in promoting Canadian values privately to Chinese officials. To Chinese arguments that the Dalai Lama is a separatist leader, he said, he replied that "in Canada we have separatist leaders. They sit across from me in the House of Commons. They ask me questions every day. We give them a car and driver, a pension and a salary and an office to work in. That's what a separatist leader is in Canada."

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