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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, and Chinese President Hu Jintao walk through the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, and Chinese President Hu Jintao walk through the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Chinese president's visit a hopeful sign for strained Canadian relationship Add to ...

With an enthusiastic toast to Canada over lunch in the Rideau Hall ballroom, Chinese President Hu Jintau signalled his country's willingness to start a new and friendlier chapter in its largely strained relationship with the Canadian Conservative government.

The overture Thursday lay in stark contrast to last December when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was publicly scolded in Beijing by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for waiting "too long" to visit China - a delay Mr. Wen said spoke to "problems of mutual trust."

Mr. Hu is naturally more staid than Mr. Wen and is not given to uttering such provocative statements. But experts point to the Chinese President's meetings in the Canadian capital - the only state visit in advance of the G8 and G20 summits - as a sign of significant thaw after four years of frost.

"China wishes to join Canada in a concerted effort to treat and develop our relations from a strategic and long-term perspective, strengthen our friendly exchanges, expand win-win co-operation and further advance our strategic partnership from a new starting point," Mr. Hu told the Thursday luncheon.

Canada wants the Chinese to designate this country as an approved travel destination, which would open the door to a massive, untapped market for tourism. Mr. Hu said after his meeting with Mr. Harper on Thursday that such an agreement would be signed.

The two leaders also signed a co-operative arrangement to reopen the Chinese market for Canadian beef and beef products, a memorandum of understanding to form a working group on commercial co-operation in the environment and clean energy sectors, and a memorandum of understanding to co-operatively combat crime.

They have also begun negotiations to secure a long-term loan of a pair of giant pandas to Canada.

"I'm also in agreement with Mr. Prime Minister that we need to take active steps to see that by the year 2015 we can make our two-way trade volume reach a level of $60-billion (US) a year," Mr. Hu said.

Later, at a dinner held in Mr. Hu's honour, Mr. Harper said Canada and China have complementary economies, "and we have yet to realize the potential of our relationship."

Canada, for instance, wants more protection for Canadian investors who put their money into Chinese ventures.

"The completion of a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement would be a helpful step forward: It would give investors from both sides the clarity and confidence required for two-way investment to grow," he said.

Mr. Harper also applauded China's recent decision to enhance the flexibility its exchange rate - even though China has not been as aggressive in that initiative as the Western world would like.

But he did not entirely skirt the issue of Canada's human-rights record. Canada believes that leadership flows from the stockpile of moral authority that accumulates when it upholds freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, Mr. Harper said.

"China and Canada have begun a frank dialogue about these values," he said.

When Mr. Hu took the podium, he reminded Mr. Harper that the relationship must be forged according to the principles of mutual respect and the appropriate handling of "sensitive issues."

But he stressed that there are many as-yet undeveloped avenues of mutual co-operation, including food security, environmental technologies, energy resources, health security and counter-terrorism.

"We need to expand bilateral trade," Mr. Hu said. "We need to oppose all forms of protectionism... We need to adopt an inclusive approach to keep our markets open."

The Chinese relationship with Canada, which is marking its 40th year, has been longer and often more profound than those between China and any other Western country.

But, when Mr. Harper took power in 2006, he demonstrated reluctance to maintain close ties to a Communist state with a poor human-rights record. It was an ideological stance that eventually gave way in the face of China's emerging position as a global economic powerhouse.

For its part, China now seems prepared to let bygones be bygones.

Charles Burton, an expert on Chinese relations at Brock University who has twice served as a counsellor of political affairs at Canada's embassy in Beijing, said the invitation extended to the Chinese president to visit Ottawa as Canada prepares to host the back-to-back meetings of world leaders is noteworthy.

"That strikes me as a sign that both Canada and China are putting a lot of stress on the importance of rebuilding the relationship," Mr. Burton said.

Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said China takes the long view in its foreign affairs policy.

"Because we are celebrating 40 years of the diplomatic relationship, they will take the entire 40 years as the measure of bi-lateral relations rather than the last five years," Mr. Yuen said.

But it will be incumbent upon Canada to come up with ideas and initiatives to strengthen bilateral ties. Canada, said Mr. Yuen, simply "doesn't register as a very important consideration in the scheme of all the global relationships and all the global issues that China is dealing with."

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