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Eager to sell Alberta oil, Harper schedules return trip to China

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces he will visit Beijing in early February as meets with Chinese Ambassador Zhang Junsai in Ottawa on Jan. 11, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper will make his second visit to China next month just as he makes selling oil to Asia a major strategic priority for Canadian trade.

The Prime Minister's Office confirmed Wednesday that Mr. Harper will make the trip, aimed at sealing his new, warmer relation with Beijing, in the second week of February.

It's a visit that was postponed after the Canadian and Chinese governments had set plans for a November visit.

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Getting it squeezed in February probably means Mr. Harper has found the last politically desirable window before the Chinese leadership becomes completely distracted with their own version of an election year – the transition from the current leadership to a new generation of top dogs that starts this fall.

That means, however, that while Mr. Harper may be able to make some progress on immediate Canadian priorities, building personal relationships with Chinese leaders will depend on whether he is able to meet not just Beijing's current leaders, but the next ones.

A statement from Mr. Harper's office said that the Prime Minister is scheduled to meet current Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. By November, however, it's expected that heir apparent Xi Jinping will have replaced Mr. Hu as head of the Communist Party, the most powerful post in China, with the presidency to be handed over in early 2013. Mr. Wen will also be replaced, probably by politburo member Lui Keqiang.

Mr. Harper, initially on chilly terms with Beijing as he made pointed remarks about human rights cases and appeared to embrace Tibetan nationalism, changed tack in 2008 and hit reset on relations with his first visit to China that year. The second trip is seen as an opportunity to seal that warmer relationship.

"Canada and China enjoy a strategic partnership based on mutual respect and collaboration, and rooted in strong social and cultural links, shared by over one million Canadians of Chinese descent," the Prime Minister said in a statement.

The Conservative government has already signalled publicly some of its immediate priorities, like finally completing a bilateral investment protection agreement to give Canadian firms and investors some assurances against arbitrary decisions from China's domestic policy-makers and courts.

But another issue, China's thirst for Canadian oil and Ottawa's newly reignited interest in selling it, is clearly Mr. Harper biggest topic now.

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Since U.S. President Barack Obama delayed a decision on the extension of a pipeline carrying bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Harper has insisted that selling it to Asia is now a strategic priority for Canada.

That means building a pipelines from Alberta to the West Coast. And Mr. Harper's government has been increasingly receptive to allowing state-owned Chinese companies to not only invest in the oil sands, but own entire operations there.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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