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Politics Trudeau hopes to ‘restart the relationship’ with China

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watches as Chinese Ambassador Luo Zhaohui, centre, and Stéphane Dion unveil photos during a celebration of Canada-China diplomatic relations in Ottawa in January. Mr. Trudeau hopes to ‘restart’ those relations this week in China.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

China and Canada will try to reset their relationship when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lands for an eight-day visit next week, with pressure on the two countries to take at least one more step toward an eventual free-trade deal.

Officials from both countries, as well as outside experts, said China wants the Liberal government to take a consistent approach to China, with a view to the long-term benefits of increased economic ties.

"It's important for Canada to have a stable, steady, constructive, effective relationship with China," said Roland Paris, who was Mr. Trudeau's foreign-policy adviser before returning to his teaching position at the University of Ottawa in June.

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Chinese officials said they were baffled at times by the previous Conservative government's position on China, which went from vocally condemning the human-rights situation in the country to trying to reap the benefits of its impressive growth. Overall, there was a sense the Conservatives were conflicted between their pro-trade and anti-communist views.

David Mulroney, Canada's ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, said Canada now needs to ensure it will have regular meetings with Chinese officials.

"We missed a number of years of regular dialogue with the Chinese," he said of the Harper years. "The most important thing is that we are back in the game."

There are still warm memories in China of the past Liberal governments of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, and officials are hoping for a renewed commitment from Mr. Trudeau to co-operation on all fronts.

"The Liberal Party has a constant policy toward China," a Chinese official said last week, adding the first objective of Mr. Trudeau's visit will be to "build trust" between the leaders of the two governments.

China has opened the door to a free-trade deal with Canada, although Canadian officials said they will approach the "complex" matter cautiously, with no chance of a deal before the 2019 general election.

"I think [Mr. Trudeau] would like to engage in an initial discussion around a free-trade agreement," said Stewart Beck, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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From Aug. 30 to Sept. 6, Mr. Trudeau will travel to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, in addition to attending the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

Canadian officials said the goal of the trip will be to "restart the relationship" with China. In particular, the Liberals feel they need to catch up to other countries that have had stronger ties to China in recent years and are better positioned to sells goods and services to the country's growing middle class.

Chinese and Canadian officials said Mr. Trudeau is already a well-known name in China, thanks not only to his father's historic visit to the country in 1973 but also his own masterful use of social media.

The Liberals want to leverage that popularity to help small- and medium-sized businesses gain an easier access to the Chinese market, while attracting more tourists and students to Canada.

"We see this as an opportunity to get Canada back on the radar screen," a government official said of the trip.

A key marker for the Liberals will be whether Mr. Trudeau gives a speech with a heavy emphasis on human rights in a public forum, said Charles Burton, a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

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"Normally, the Prime Minister gets to make a speech at a university to talk about the importance of democracy and human rights," he said. "If he is not speaking at a university, that would suggest it's game over for us dialoguing with China on human rights."

A Canadian federal official added Mr. Trudeau will make it clear he believes in the universality of human rights, aiming for a balanced message that will offer the best odds of long-term success.

Mr. Mulroney said a key element for the government will be selling a skeptical public about the potential benefits of increased ties with China, despite the country's unpopular decisions on the world stage.

"What needs to happen after the visit is that Canadians need to be convinced why this is important," Mr. Mulroney said.

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