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Effusive John Baird wraps up China visit with praise for 'strategic partner'

Foreign Minister John Baird walks out of a Boeing 737-800 flight simulator at Air China's training center in Beijing on July 19, 2011.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP

John Baird is hailing a "new era" in relations with Beijing, saying there will be "honest differences of opinion" with China on human rights but relations on trade and other issues will move forward.

The Foreign Affairs Minister could not have gone further to signal that the chilly days of the relationship between Ottawa and Beijing that marked the early days of the Harper government are now gone.

The phrases Mr. Baird has used to describe his hosts in his three-day trip to China have been effusive. He called China a friend and an ally, and asserted the two countries have a "strategic partnership" - a phrase revived from the days of Liberal rule, when Ottawa expressed a desire for deeper, broad-based ties.

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"I think obviously the relationship has entered a new era over the past few years," Mr. Baird said in a conference call with reporters from Shanghai at the end of his visit to China. "We have a strategic partner, whether it's on energy, natural resources, international affairs."

Mr. Baird insisted he has raised human-rights issues, including the case of a Uighur-Canadian imprisoned in China, Huseyin Celil, and that it's no "either-or" choice for a Canadian government between chasing trade and pressing for the respect of rights, "not forgetting that neither one is more important the other."

"I think we need to pursue both, and do it vigorously. You know what, there will be honest differences of opinion," he said.

When a representative of the Epoch Times, a newspaper with links to China's Falun Gong movement, suggested Mr. Baird's language did not match the actions of a Chinese Communist Party regime that has killed millions, Mr. Baird argued history should not get in the way of relations.

"When you say millions have been killed by the regime, I mean, obviously countries we work well with like Russia and Germany have been through challenges in their history, but we now count them as allies," Mr. Baird said. "Obviously we have substantial disagreements on some files with our counterparts, and we've taken the opportunity during this visit to raise those."

Mr. Baird's visit has underlined warmer ties with Beijing, but has again revived criticism that Liberal governments faced: that Canadian concerns about the respect for human rights in China are glossed over in the pursuit of greater trade.

But Canadian difficulties with China's record on human rights have persisted, even when the politicians don't want them to. The case of Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing has seen courts in Canada worry about the lack of due process in Beijing's justice system, and express less faith in assurances that China won't execute or torture a high-profile prisoner.

Mr. Baird has signalled that Ottawa wants to be rid of Mr. Lai, who has been in Canada since 1999 fighting extradition for alleged smuggling and bribery. But the Foreign Affairs Minister has also complained about the lack of due process and transparency in the case of political prisoners.

Mr. Baird argued the two types of cases have to be treated differently. "I think we have to separate legitimate crime and law-enforcement issues from political issues before a judicial system," he said.

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