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The Globe and Mail

Baird's Beijing trip signals China’s importance to Canada

John Baird, who says he "gets it" about China, is heading there next week in an effort to broaden and deepen Canada's sometimes frustrating relationship with the Asian giant.

By flying to Beijing within weeks of taking over as foreign minister, Mr. Baird hopes to signal that Sino-Canadian relations are at the very top of the Harper government's foreign agenda because China is vital to Canada's future economic prosperity.

"The potential is huge, and this is a sign to them and to the world that we realize this," said a government official who spoke on background.

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Mr. Baird will meet in Beijing with Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi, speak to groups of Chinese and Canadian business leaders, including with executives of the China National Petroleum Corporation, and attend the FINA World Aquatics Championship in Shanghai, where Canadians are competing.

Canada and China hope to double trade by 2015. Currently, that trade is tilted heavily in China's favour. Canada exported $12.8-billion worth of goods in 2010 – mostly wood products, metals and coal – and imported $44.4-billion worth of machinery, toys, furniture and clothing.

A comprehensive trade agreement with China is simply not on: others are ahead of us in line, and the two countries continue to debate questions of human rights in China, alleged Chinese criminals seeking sanctuary in Canada, government ownership of large swaths of the Chinese economy and Canadian wariness of Chinese investments.

Relations between the two governments are only slowly warming after some frosty years in which Stephen 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.

But 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.

There will, of course be the mandatory lecture on human rights.

"We have these frank and open discussions with China with respect to human rights as part of the mature, bilateral relation that we have with this emerging superpower," a Foreign Affairs official told reporters.

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But the federal government is more interested in talking about Chinese regulatory obstacles to Canadian businesses, expanding the already robust population – some 60,000 – of Chinese students at Canadian universities, promoting tourism in both directions, and promoting and protecting foreign investment.

One example: Canada exports pork. Pork is in short supply in China, which is helping to fuel inflation. Canadian pork producers constantly struggle to overcome Chinese obstacles to pork imports, despite agreements. Maybe there's a better deal to be made.

Mr. Baird is also travelling to Bali, Indonesia, for a conference of minister from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). One item on the agenda will be controlling illegal immigration, such as the boatloads of Sri Lankan refugee claimants that have been landing on Canadian shores.

"Canada has been seen as indifferent or uninterested in the work of ASEAN," said Yuen Pau Woo, head of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. That Mr. Baird is making this trip "is a very powerful signal of this government's interest in the region."

Although such things are intangible, those who watch the Chinese government stress the importance of constant engagement and direct contact. Mr. Baird's trip, if it accomplishes nothing else, is intended to promote that engagement and contact.

If one day it makes it easier to sell pork into China, so much the better.

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