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Prime Minister Stephen Harper participates in a tribute to the Canadian Forces, as well as fallen soldiers Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, before the start of CFL action between the Ottawa Redblacks and the Montreal Alouettes in Ottawa on Oct. 24, 2014.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

Those with the most at stake in a prime ministerial visit to China are urging Stephen Harper to come to Beijing for meetings with the country's leadership, after he suddenly cancelled plans to attend the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The withdrawal drew criticism in China, where it was seen as a "disappointment" and an unwise decision to place domestic affairs ahead of international concerns.

It also prompted pleas from Canada's business establishment and the family of a detained Canadian couple for Mr. Harper to still attend high-level bilateral talks scheduled for next week, which are separate from the APEC summit.

Without the Prime Minister's presence, they say, Canada is unlikely to immediately secure a much-wanted deal to trade Chinese currency at home. It may also squander an opportunity to intercede on behalf of Kevin and Julia Garratt, who have been held for almost three months on suspicion of stealing state secrets – but have not been formally arrested.

The dates set for the meetings with Chinese leadership – Nov. 5 and 6 – allow the Prime Minister to visit Beijing and still return home in time for Nov. 11. Much planning has been done for the meetings, with crews flying to China from Ottawa to scout locations. If it happens, it stands to be the first formal tête-à-tête between Mr. Harper and China's Xi Jinping, who has distinguished himself as among the most travelled presidents in the nation's recent history. Canada has not participated in a bilateral meeting with China since February, 2012.

But the Prime Minister's Office has yet to confirm whether he will attend amid behind-the-scenes political jockeying that stands to introduce new fissures into a relationship already damaged in recent months by mutual allegations of spying.

"It is still to be determined whether he will come to China for a bilateral visit," a Canadian official said Tuesday.

The lack of confirmation barely a week from the promised meetings has raised tensions for groups who warn that spurning it will injure Canada's ability to secure wanted concessions from China.

Chief among them is a desire by the business community to establish Canada as a hub for settlement of China's currency, the renminbi. Senior figures in the banking community have told The Globe and Mail they expect a deal toward that end to be signed in Beijing. Without a high-level meeting, however, it's not clear when an agreement might be concluded.

"You just can't imagine there would be an occasion at which something could be signed without leaders in place," said Sarah Kutulakos, executive director of the Canada-China Business Council.

If Beijing grants Canada RMB settlement hub status, it will allow Canadian exporters and importers to convert directly from loonies into RMB, saving the expense of first going through U.S. dollars. It promises to spur new trade from other nations in the Americas, since Canada would offer a more convenient time zone for currency conversion. Some $20-billion in new import and export revenues could also result, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has estimated.

More broadly, Canadian companies are eager to have Mr. Harper secure time with Chinese leadership. Good relations at the top, they say, pay tangible dividends in a country where government still plays an outsized role in the economy.

Among the reasons for Mr. Harper's unwillingness to confirm his trip is a bid to pressure Beijing into releasing the Garratts, who China says it suspects of stealing state military and defence research secrets. But those with most at stake in the couple's release – their children – say they, too, want the prime minister to come to China.

"If Mr. Harper is there, he's less than an hour flight from where two innocent Canadians are detained," said Simeon Garratt, the couple's eldest son. He added: "I would prefer that he go and make a point of having my parents released."

At the same time, in cancelling plans to attend APEC, Mr. Harper is pulling out of an event with central importance to Chinese leadership. Much like it did with the 2008 Olympics, China sees the summit as a chance to make a global impression as a capable host with increasingly outsized economic and political power.

APEC's importance, however, has been eclipsed by other multinational forums. And Mr. Harper said he wants to stay home for the first Remembrance Day ceremony since separate attacks killed two Canadian soldiers on home soil. That rationale found some understanding in China, a country that spends great time and effort on its own armed forces.

"While it is a disappointment he is not coming, we wish him well in the domestic effort to fight against terrorism," said Victor Gao, a director at the China National Association of International Studies, and a prominent voice on Canada-China relations. But, he added, APEC could provide a good forum for discussion of international responses to terrorism, not to mention place Mr. Harper in the Asia-Pacific market Canada increasingly needs for its oil and gas. Staying home is a "wrong" allocation of time, Mr. Gao said.

"If I were advising Prime Minister Harper, I would say go attend the APEC meeting, because that's about the future life or death of the economy of Canada, especially in the energy sector," he said.