Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives Tuesday in China for a trip that will see him sit down with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to talk about shipping Canadian oil to China, as well as a possible pact to protect Canadian investors doing business in the Middle Kingdom. But arguably even more important to the future of bilateral ties will be the rest of Mr. Harper's schedule, which will see him meet at least three senior Communist Party figures who are expected to take on more prominent roles after a once-in-a-decade power transfer that begins this fall.
If Mr. Harper can forge lasting links with the incoming Chinese leadership, it will cement one of the most dramatic foreign policy reversals in recent memory. The Prime Minister had stern words for the Chinese in 2006, saying he placed Canadian "values" like human rights over trade. In a statement last month, however, the emphasis was decidedly on economic ties.
Now the Prime Minister may emerge with closer ties to China's Communist leaders than any of his predecessors. Getting to know China's next leaders – and how they think – would bolster a relationship that has staggered at times. Gordon Houlden, a former director-general of the East Asian Bureau of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said he was "certain" that reaching out to the next generation was a primary goal of Mr. Harper's trip.
"To me, it has to be an objective: the need to renew the relationship at the highest level," said Mr. Houlden, now director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. "I think it shows a comfort with the China file that might not have been there before."
In addition to the meetings with Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen, Mr. Harper's itinerary in Beijing includes a sit-down with Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, the man expected to succeed Mr. Wen next year. Mr. Li is a Politburo veteran and protégé of Mr. Hu – a leader who took a steady-as-she-goes approach during his decade as president.
(The Canadian side also sought a meeting with Vice-President Xi Jinping, the man expected to succeed Mr. Hu as paramount leader later this year. However, no such meeting is currently planned.)
After three days in Beijing comes a rapid but carefully crafted two-city jaunt into southern China. Mr. Harper will split the last two days of his trip between the manufacturing hubs of Guangzhou, where he will give a speech to the Canadian business community, and Chongqing, where he is expected to announce that two Chinese pandas are headed for the Toronto Zoo.
Mr. Harper's trip is primarily about trade, but his meetings in Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing could give his government unique insight into the coming changes in China. The biggest benefit from the southern tour, however, will be his face-to-face meetings with local Communist Party bosses Wang Yang and Bo Xilai, who represent extremes along China's narrow political spectrum and are the faces of a next generation of leaders.
Mr. Wang and Mr. Bo are not only leading contenders to be promoted to join Mr. Xi and Mr. Li on the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo this fall, when seven of its nine members are set to retire. The two men are often held up as rivals who offer starkly different visions for China's future.
Mr. Wang presides over a liberalizing Guangdong province, where media and civil society are freer than anywhere else in the country. He also impressed observers recently with the tolerant way he handled protesters who overthrew the Party leadership in the village of Wukan, leading to one of the freest local elections China has ever seen.
Mr. Bo, meanwhile, has become popular for his crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing and his calls to redistribute the country's growing wealth. At the same time, he has unsettled some with his Mao-style propaganda campaigns that recall of darker periods in the country's recent past.
Mr. Harper is believed to be the first foreign leader to meet Mr. Li, Mr. Wang and Mr. Bo on the same official visit.
Even former critics of Mr. Harper's China policy applaud his strategy on this trip. Howard Balloch, a former Canadian ambassador to China who now heads a Beijing-based investment bank, said that getting to know the incoming leadership early would be a "very smart" move, if that is indeed what Mr. Harper is coming to China to do. "I'm pleased that our China policy is on track right now," Mr. Balloch said.
"For a leader like Harper to know the future leadership early would certainly have some advantages," said Liu Jun, a Canada expert at the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. However, Mr. Liu said China's one-party system means the policy changes from one generation of leaders to the next are rarely as dramatic as those that follow changes of power in multiparty democracies.
Indeed, the handover of power in China is expected to take years. If Mr. Hu follows precedent, he will remain as head of the military until 2014, and likely retain substantial influence long after that. His own predecessor, Jiang Zemin, is believed to still hold sway over key decisions, including the selections of Mr. Xi and Mr. Li.
Still, the effort itself is remarkable from a Prime Minister who once rankled Beijing by proudly bestowing honorary citizenship on the Dalai Lama and famously staying away from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Human rights groups say China has gone backward since then in terms of how it treats dissidents and ethnic minorities, but little of the old criticism is expected to make it onto the agenda while Mr. Harper builds ties.
"China is being treated with a softness and reverence on some issues that would have been a surprise to Liberal and even Conservative governments in the past," said Paul Evans, director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. "The period of treating China as a godless authoritarian country with nuclear weapons – it's as if it never happened."
The arrival of the two pandas – a centuries-old goodwill gesture known in China as "panda diplomacy" – will symbolize the new warmth between the Communist and Conservative governments.
Canadian leaders have sought pandas since Pierre Trudeau went to China on his inaugural trip in 1973. Mr. Trudeau went so far as to offer four beavers to then-Chinese-premier Zhou Enlai in hopes of provoking an exchange of national symbols that never happened. Until now.