Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, left, and daughter Ella-Grace arrive in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, August 30, 2016.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Hours after landing in Beijing, Justin Trudeau signalled Canada is ready to take the first step in a promised "reset" of its relationship with its second-largest trading partner by applying for membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a China-led institution the United States has refused to join.

Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau is expected to meet Wednesday afternoon with Jin Liqun, the bank's president, in Beijing, at the outset of Mr. Trudeau's inaugural trip to China as Prime Minister.

"We are looking very favourably at the possibility of joining," Mr. Trudeau said Tuesday after arriving in China.

The AIIB is China's answer to the U.S.-dominated World Bank and the Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank. The new global financial institution is headquartered in Beijing, with China as its largest shareholder. Though it has been built as an international organization – with Western countries contributing to its governance standards and English as its language of operations – the bank, in selecting which highways, power plants and railways to fund, gives China new power to exert regional influence.

Signing up is a way for Ottawa to curry favour, sending a message that it supports a project central to China's ambitions in challenging the existing world order. It will not, however, bring new wealth to Canadian corporations, since the AIIB's universal procurement policy allows any company access to project bidding, regardless of whether its home country has membership in the bank.

And it does little to resolve the tension between Canada's desire to profit from China and the will among China's business and political leadership to further integrate Canada into its economic orbit.

Mr. Trudeau, however, has made it his goal to renew friendship and "openness toward China," and his pursuit of the AIIB is one step in that direction – even if Canada's tardiness in doing so limits the symbolic power of the move.

When Britain joined early last year, it won cheers in Beijing but anger from the Washington establishment, which criticized London for its "accommodation of China," and for "prostrating" itself before China in the name of winning more business.

Eighteen months later, the United States has made peace with the AIIB – offering an effective truce in the matter with China last fall – while Australia, France and Germany all number among the 57 founding members, giving them additional voting rights and a chance to shape bank governance. China has now opened a second window for applications, saying new members could be added by 2017.

"At this stage, there's no harm in joining," said Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. "What's important is that Canada uses its influence to make sure that the AIIB adheres to international standards. The signs so far have been generally positive," he said.

"It was a major mistake not to have joined in the first place," said Jeremy Paltiel, a scholar in Asian foreign policy at Carleton University.

"The world needs China to play a responsible role commensurate with its global capacity. The alternative is to exacerbate global economic stagnation or even decline. Is this really what we want?"

For Mr. Trudeau, the bank decision may be the easiest he makes in China, where soon after his arrival he was confronted by the determination of China's business establishment to focus its immense economic might on Canada.

At a meeting with the China Entrepreneur Club, a collection of billionaires led by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, executives peppered the Prime Minister with questions about whether he would welcome their money in sensitive Canadian industries, such as culture and agriculture. The latter came from a company with negotiators currently in Canada trying to buy pig farms.

One man even suggested making Chinese an official language in Canada. Do that and "you will certainly be bigger than your father to a lot of Chinese people," the man said, referring to Pierre Trudeau's renown from more than four decades ago, when Ottawa was among the first Western countries to diplomatically recognize Communist China.

The Prime Minister demurred. Improve the relationship and there will be more avenues to invest, he said. But he was more interested in selling Canadian food and technology to China.

Still, it's unclear how much Mr. Trudeau can achieve. With an increasingly skeptical population at home, including a business community not certain free trade with China is in their best interests, expectations are low for a dramatic economic breakthrough during Mr. Trudeau's week in the country.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau expects to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Prime Minister is expected to press China to release missionary Kevin Garratt and to allow Canadian canola exports – a victory that, if it comes, would merely mean achieving the status quo.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau pitched Canada as a bridge between China and the world, a bid to take back the role fashioned by his father.

Canada is "in a position to help China position itself in a very positive way on the world stage," Mr. Trudeau said Tuesday.

"Around the world, there is anxiety around trade; there is anxiety around China," he said, adding: "How can the relationship between China and Canada set a new tone, and a new era of positive collaboration, that is good for the citizens of both countries?"

He called for "regular frank dialogue" on issues such as human rights. China, he said, would be well served to "ask for advice and take suggestions about how to be better for its citizens."

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct