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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to members of the business community in Beijing on Nov. 8.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada's aviation, banking, nuclear and berry industries signed a series of deals in China mid-way through a prime ministerial visit that saw new agreements to export more planes, reactors and cherries across the Pacific.

In Beijing for a visit that saw him meet with Chinese premier Li Keqiang, Stephen Harper also nosed Canada toward potential talks on a free trade agreement with China, which the Conservative government has been reticent to broach after a domestic backlash to a precursor foreign investment promotion and protection agreement.

The two countries also agreed to establish a Canadian settlement hub for the renminbi, China's currency, with terms broadly similar to what major centres like London have secured.

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The haul for Canadian businesses was slimmer than on Mr. Harper's 2012 trip to China, when he signed deals worth $3-billion. This time, after a hastily-arranged visit confirmed just days before he arrived, the total fell shy of $2.5-billion, a substantial portion of it devoted to a single sale already announced months ago. Many of the largest deals also involved companies already involved in the Chinese market, which corporate Canada has struggled to access on a large scale.

Bombardier announced China Express Airlines as the customer for 16 of its CRJ900 regional jets, with the option to buy eight more. The full sale, if it is made, will be worth $1.12-billion (U.S.). The Montreal-based plane-maker had initially disclosed the deal in June, but not named the buyer.

China Express is the country's first privately-run regional carrier, and already runs a fleet of Bombardier aircraft. Regional travel is just 3 per cent of the Chinese market — compared to nearly a quarter in North America — but is rising as even smaller and more distant Chinese cities accumulate the wealth and the population to support greater air travel.

"The speed of its growth is twice the mainline carriers," said Hu Xiaojun, the airline's chairman.

Air Canada and Air China also signed an initial agreement toward creating a revenue-sharing joint venture to build new cross-Pacific air routes. Both airlines today face limitations on the number and destination of flights they can land in each other's nations. Partnering could allow "more frequencies, and over time each of us would be operating more flights, potentially to more cities," said Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu.

The deal could see the purchase of more aircraft to land in cities outside Toronto and Vancouver, the only departure points to mainland China for Air Canada's current scheduled service. Air Canada has similar deals with Lufthansa and United, but none over the Pacific. "So this signals the importance for us of China," Mr. Rovinescu said.

A formal deal must first pass anti-trust approval, but could be completed in months he said. He said Montreal and Calgary "would be good guesses" of cities that might gain China connections.

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Other deals signed in Beijing Saturday will clear the way for exports of Canadian cherries and blueberries to China, and will push forward talks toward building new Candu nuclear reactors here. Other contracts will bring Canadian waste-to-energy and air pollution reduction technology to China.

"As a result of these signings, thousands of jobs in Canada will be secured or created," said Mr. Harper.

Mr. Li call the deals "indicative of the fruits of pragmatic cooperation between China and Canada."

The Chinese premier also called attention to the establishment of annual meetings between foreign ministers, and the creation of an "economic and financial strategic dialogue mechanism" that he said "will give a strong boost to our overall relationship and pragmatic cooperation."

That agreement could inaugurate a march toward closer economic ties. China has called for talks toward a free trade agreement — it is already nearing completion on such a deal with Australia — which Canada's Conservative government has so far resisted. But a strategic dialogue "is one of the things we were pressing for. Can we start to explore what are the options for deepening the relationship together?" said Perrin Beatty, CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Canadian finance minister Joe Oliver, in Beijing in late October, said Ottawa first wants to look at the foreign investment promotion and protection agreement "to see how it works" before pursuing free trade agreement talks.

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"There has been, as we know, quite a bit of trade between our two countries," he said then. "We want to see that trade continue. And there will be a discussion between officials to see how that can be built on in the future."


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