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foreign relations

Headshot of Campbell Clark for logos of Ottawa bureau staff. June 18, 2010.Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail

China's still-mysterious new leader, Xi Jinping, has never been to Canada. But Canada has already seen its own little version of a new wave from Beijing.

Mr. Xi has everyone in the world guessing. He's taking over the leadership of the Communist Party, and in March, he'll replace Hu Jintao as president. Still, the rest of the world doesn't really know his vision for China, or its foreign relations.

What we do know is style: Mr. Xi is described as affable and approachable, unlike Mr. Hu. And he apparently sees China's interest in reassuring the world: On a trip to the U.S. last year, he told Americans a rising China is not a threat, but a "positive force."

Here in Canada, there's already something of a new Chinese style, one that came to us by way of Australia. Zhang Junsai, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, was posted in Australia before he came to Ottawa 13 months ago. So was his deputy, and the head of his political section, and one or two others in the embassy.

These Chinese diplomats speak English well, and with a colloquial touch. They can crack a joke, and take one. In an interview with The Globe and Mail in September, Mr. Zhang used phrases such as "give us a break" and "business is business." They are more savvy with the media, and with Western politics and politicians, than their predecessors.

The Australian connection matters. They have seen a glimpse of our future. They have experience. Part of that experience is dealing with fear of a rising China.

They've worked in a country grappling with China's growing presence, and investment in its resources, and they know that public opinion matters to China's own interests. The public apprehension in Canada over Chinese firm CNOOC Ltd.'s $15.1-billion bid to buy Alberta's Nexen Inc. appears, to Chinese eyes, to carry a whiff of Sinophobia. But they have experience with the same sentiments in Australia.

In a sense, Australia, closer to Asia, is five or ten years ahead of Canada in relations with China. But it's on a similar road. Australia felt China's keen interest in its natural resources earlier. Australia decided on its own pivot to China for trade long before Stephen Harper did. Apprehension about what China wants came a little sooner in Australia, too.

So did the change in Chinese style. In 2003, a woman named Fu Ying was posted as ambassador in Canberra, and she cut a completely different figure. She followed a long series of stereotypical Chinese ambassadors, dour, unsmiling men. Ms. Fu was from Inner Mongolia, wore elegant pink suits, made her residence stylish and spoke English well. The Sydney Morning Herald did a spread on her in its lifestyle pages.

Ms. Fu, of course, still worked for the same government. What was different was that she could engage Australians much more effectively, and influence them. Charm gets better results, especially when part of the job is convincing people that you're not so scary.

Mr. Zhang came to Canberra later, but relations were still rushing along, as Australia made massive deals to sell liquid natural gas to China, accepted some investments and rejected others, testing ties. Still, Mr. Zhang said that during his three-year stay there, Chinese investment went from $7-billion to more than $40-billion.

Mr. Zhang knows to make a case, not demands. "We're not coming to control your resources," he said bluntly in September, when asked about the concerns over deals like the bid to buy Nexen. He cited the benefits for Canadians doing business in China, and summoned figures. Chinese officials note that the total stock Chinese investment in Canada is a relatively small $16-billion.

Did that work in Australia? In one sense, yes. Australia embraces its business ties to China, its top trading partner. It seems inevitable. "It's not just commodities," noted Linda Jakobson, East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. China is now Australia's biggest source of immigrants, tourists and foreign students.

But the wariness is still there. There's new concern over Chinese buying up farms. Polls show worry about Chinese investment is up. The concern is whether it is just business, Ms. Jakobson said.

"I would not use the word Sinophobia, but there is question of uncertainty," she said. "Are they genuine companies, or are they representing the state? This conversation has been ongoing."

China's diplomats, in Australia and Canada, are now trying address that wariness. Rising powers always raises nerves, Ms. Jakobson noted. But Mr. Xi's arrival, with few clues of his plans, underlines the uncertainty behind it. "We really do not know how China is going to use its power," Ms. Jakobson said.

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