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Politics Trudeau's trip to China will be a diplomatic balancing act

Will Justin Trudeau hug the panda? The Prime Minister's first trip to China will be full of symbols, some of which will affect Canada's future.

Mr. Trudeau is grappling with two conflicting forces in dealing with Beijing: the belief that Canada's economic growth requires deeper ties to China's fast-growing market and rapidly expanding middle class, and the fact that Canadians are ambivalent, even leery, about close ties to Beijing.

The Chinese want Canada to launch free-trade talks – and some in Mr. Trudeau's inner circle think that's a good idea. But many Canadians feel the Chinese regime is a bad actor, with a poor human-rights record and suspicious motives when it claims Asian islands or buys into Alberta oil-sands projects. That makes many more skeptical about a deal with big, powerful China.

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So Mr. Trudeau has to balance some symbolism. The Chinese want signs that an era of warm ties is coming back after the cold-hot-cold inconsistency of Stephen Harper's China policy – they expected more of that warmth when the Liberals, led by the son of the prime minister who opened diplomatic relations, came to power. They want some public signal that Canada is willing to explore free trade, at least some day. They want Mr. Trudeau to deliver symbols that he recognizes China is a big, important power – the PM's agenda, five days in four cities even before the G20 summit opens in Hangzhou, is one.

But while Mr. Trudeau's government has decided to embrace China's economic potential, Mr. Trudeau also has to worry about keeping a certain distance from Beijing.

His government is considering how it might bring the public along to build support for closer ties over time. Free trade? Mr. Trudeau's government has decided it has to be careful – it might be something to shoot for, but Ottawa will also seek to reassure Canadians it's not happening for years, at least.

It's not like a trade deal with the European Union or South Korea. A Nanos Research poll in February found that 76 per cent of respondents had a negative view of the Chinese government; on free trade, 47 per cent were opposed and 41 per cent in favour.

That kind of sentiment made Mr. Harper's policy an inconsistent mess. He first stressed human rights, then shifted, urging the Chinese to invest in Canada – but when Chinese state-owned corporations started investing extensively in the oil sands, he shut the door.

Mr. Trudeau's Liberals want to avoid that. They want a steady long-term policy and to build public support. But they also believe China's growing economy is an unavoidable strategic priority.

That's the message Mr. Trudeau's cabinet heard in April, when Dominic Barton, the managing director of global management consulting giant McKinsey & Co. and the chair of the government's economic growth advisory council, gave ministers a presentation on China during a retreat in Kananaskis.

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Mr. Barton told them boosting Canadian economic growth depends on connecting to faster-growing economies like China. And he told them the future opportunity in China isn't just fuelling its industry with oil or minerals, but in its growing middle class – which went from one in twenty Chinese in 2000 to roughly two in three now. They want services, international brands and higher-end products.

That means opportunities to sell seafood or B.C. fruit, services such as insurance, health care and education – accepting foreign students, many from China, is now a $20-billion "export" for Australia. It means the future is less about contracts for shiploads of materials and more about presence in the Chinese market. And, Mr. Barton's presentation noted, Australia now has a free-trade agreement with China that gives it an edge over Canada.

Free trade with China isn't simple, however. Even with formal access, Canadian businesses could still fear they'd be obstructed in a country where most big corporations are state-owned. Then there are the concessions here: do Canadian workers want to open the doors wider to Chinese competition?

That's on top of general China suspicion. Many Canadians fear embracing Chinese business means shutting up about human rights. What will Mr. Trudeau say?

There are others watching, too, allies and East Asian nations that wonder if Ottawa, in a rush to expand trade, will ignore the other side of China's rise, like its expansionist claims on maritime territory. One Asian diplomat expressed concern that Mr. Trudeau's government might be populated by "panda-huggers."

But Mr. Trudeau's real challenge is the conflicting symbols the Chinese and Canadians expect. If he holds the panda too close, he might feel the political squeeze at home.

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