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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during an awards ceremony honouring Canada's best teachers in Ottawa on Oct. 5, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during an awards ceremony honouring Canada's best teachers in Ottawa on Oct. 5, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Stephen Harper heads to China Add to ...

Stephen Harper will go to China.

After a year of efforts to thaw chilled ties with the world's fastest-rising economic and political power, the Prime Minister will cap the moves with a highly-symbolic visit to China from Dec. 2 to 6.

In Canada's international relations, the visit is no small matter: China-watchers say top-level political visits are key to widening relations with Beijing, and with the list of state-owned or state-companies and funds that are now emerging as major players in world markets.

"Our two countries enjoy a growing partnership, sharing significant interests in trade and investment, the environment and regional security," Mr. Harper said Wednesday in a news release. "Canada is committed to a strong relationship with China that reflects our mutual respect and the need for practical co-operation."

Mr. Harper's Conservative government entered office with a hawkish view of the world's most populous nation - and in opposition had derided Liberal governments for letting a desire for more trade trump the need to be vocal about China's human rights failings.

Once in office, Mr. Harper not only took China to task for its treatment of individuals like Huseyin Celil, a Uighur-Canadian convicted in a closed-door trial on terrorism charges, and he vowed he would not play down such concerns to "sell out to the almighty dollar." Mr. Harper's personal meeting with the Dalai Lama, complete with the display of a Tibetan flag, irritated Chinese officials who view the spiritual leader as a separatist.

But China's rise as an economic power - Mr. Harper's office noted it is now Canada's third-largest export power - and its expanding role in global politics, have led the Conservatives to warm relations, and adopt a quieter tone on rights issues.

Two key Harper ministers trooped to Beijing in the spring, paving the way for the visit. Trade Minister Stockwell Day, once the most vocal of the hardliners on China within the Conservative caucus, returned to trumpet the business potential; in May, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon spent five days in China preparing for Mr. Harper's mission.

The global financial meltdown only hastened that change of attitudes in Mr. Harper's government. One Conservative noted that underlined how Canada cannot rely on the U.S. as its dominant trading partner, and had to look harder at emerging partners like China.

Beijing has also emerged as a pivotal player on political questions like forging an international climate change treaty - so much so that some now refer to the U.S. and China as a "G2" group of nations that can, between them, broker the main points of international disputes between developed and emerging nations.

The announcement of the China trip came on the same day that Mr. Harper's office confirmed another visit to an emerging Asian economic power, India. Mr. Harper plans to visit India from Nov. 16 to 18 have already been leaked to news organizations - but the fact that they were announced on the same day appeared to be a nod to the rivalry between the two.

Canada's ties with India have warmed since August, 2008, when Ottawa dropped its long-standing objections to India's nuclear industry and helped it gain entry to the world's civilian nuclear trade - even though it developed nuclear weapons in the 1970s with the help of Canadian nuclear technology.

Indian officials have told The Globe and Mail they are preparing to finalize a raft of trade-related agreements, including deals to allow Canadian nuclear exports to India, to smooth investment, and to open talks toward a potential free trade agreement.

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