Canada and China are set to enter a new "golden" era under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, China's second-most powerful man told Jean Chrétien in Beijing this week.
"Mr. Chrétien, it will be like the golden years of your relationship with China will be back hopefully," Premier Li Keqiang told the former Canadian prime minister in a half-hour meeting Tuesday.
Mr. Chrétien in turn offered the "best wishes of Prime Minister Trudeau," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Chrétien, in China on behalf of the Denton's law firm, said Chinese leaders are looking forward to Mr. Trudeau's visit to China for G20 meetings in Hangzhou in September. He would not say if the two men discussed an official Canadian visit in advance of the fall meetings, or whether a Canada-China free trade deal would be on the agenda.
"We discussed all sorts of files and we discussed international files and we discussed Canada-China relations ... so I was in a position to make hopefully some very effective representations," he said.
Mr. Chrétien has long-standing ties to China, a country he courted both in and out of office. He championed the "Team Canada" trade missions that elevated the profile of Canadian businesses in the 1990s, but has continued to return in later years as an "old friend" of China.
The Chinese premier told Mr. Chrétien "there is great scope" for further co-operation between the two countries, and "appreciates" efforts by Mr. Trudeau to warm relations, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported. Last year was the first since 1989, the year of the Tiananmen massacre, that Canada sent no cabinet ministers to China.
The Trudeau government, however, wants to press forward on several major new trade initiatives, including talks toward a free-trade agreement. International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has suggested Canada will also seek membership in the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, a major Chinese initiative seen as a counter to U.S. dominance in the global financial system.
Although a free-trade deal would likely take years to complete, Canada could attempt to sign an agreement to "achieve parity" with a China-Australia free-trade agreement that entered into force late last year, said Sarah Kutulakos, executive director at the Canada China Business Council.
Mr. Chrétien, she said, has helped provided "a bridge" between Canada and China over the years. "He's still highly respected in China," she said, and "there is a fair amount of continuity under him."
The Chinese premier's reference to "golden years" echoes recent language used between China and Britain, which have heralded a "golden era" in ties. London's courting of Beijing has resulted in major new trade contracts, including a deal by a Chinese company to develop nuclear power in Britain, and praise from Beijing.
Last fall, the nationalist Global Times newspaper called Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne "the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region's business potential instead of finding fault over the human-rights issue."
But the British embrace of the "golden era" has been controversial, labelled a "national humiliation" by Prime Minister David Cameron's own former strategy adviser. The country's newspaper columnists have called it a "grand kowtow" to an authoritarian regime that imprisons critics and censors free speech.
Mr. Chrétien travels regularly to China on behalf of his own private interests, including the Denton's law firm.
A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada said she "had no information" on the Chrétien visit.
"Although our ambassador accompanied Mr. Chrétien, this is out of courtesy to him as our former prime minister," Tania Assaly said in an e-mail.