When Chinese President Hu Jintao left Vancouver for Beijing last weekend, he must have had mixed feelings about his North American visit. Stops in Washington and Seattle were cancelled while Americans wrestled with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. He met George Bush and 10 other foreign leaders for discussions in New York around the margins of what was probably the UN's most disappointing meeting ever. And Mr. Hu was briefly trapped in a Mexico City elevator during a visit more fraught with anxiety about China's rising economic power than ideas for dealing with it.
But the five-day Canadian visit to Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver may well be remembered as the most successful by a Chinese leader to Canada. The visit's resulting so-called "strategic partnership" could transform Western Canada, distress the Americans, and alter the political economy of Canada.
Unlike the flurry of commercial deals that characterize Team Canada visits to China, Mr. Hu's focus was on the relationship, specifically seven new agreements to deepen co-operation in transportation, food safety, health sciences and nuclear energy, and a joint declaration on science and technology (including a program of collaborative research on climate change and sustainable energy). As well, Mr. Martin and Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson were able to spend an unprecedented amount of time discussing human-rights issues with Mr. Hu.
The decision to elevate the relationship to a "strategic partnership" appears to have been taken only after the President's arrival. Both sides were quick to point out that the word "strategic" is used in a commercial sense and does not include a military or security dimension. On the Chinese side, it replaced the ungainly "trans-century comprehensive partnership" that had been used by former president Jiang Zemin during his 1997 visit. More significantly, it puts Canada in a category that includes the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Russia, India and Brazil.
For the Canadian side, the significance of "strategic partnership" is different. It means that the process of high-level contacts that has been a hallmark of prime ministerial policies since Pierre Trudeau will expand. Mr. Martin has encouraged virtually every federal department and agency to focus on China and embrace a "whole of government" approach in doing so.
Second, the phrase has been accompanied by assurances that Chinese investment in Canada, including in energy and minerals, is welcome on a commercial basis. A recent study by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada indicates that few Chinese firms are interested in investing here - but the visit may stimulate new approaches.
Third, it sends messages to the United States that Chinese firms will be welcome, including in the Canadian energy sector, and that Canada still has concerns about North American integration.
Less noticed in Eastern Canada was that both Mr. Martin and Mr. Hu linked the strategic partnership to forging an Asia Pacific Gateway Strategy. The immediate focus of this strategy (being developed by the province of British Columbia in co-operation with Alberta and the federal government) is revamping the physical infrastructure of ports, roads, rail lines and pipelines to accommodate a substantially expanded connection to goods and people from Asia. When Mr. Martin proclaimed that the Gateway Strategy was for British Columbia, the West and all of Canada, a regional initiative spurred by dreams of expanded relations with China took on the status of a national strategy for dealing with Asia.
The Gateway concept is the political antithesis of Fortress North America and continental protectionism. Instead, it's one move in a broader opening to Asia. The implications for transportation and energy policy are immediate; in other policy areas, including border security, immigration and citizenship, health, education and, above all, industrial policy, the game is just beginning. Now the strategy must move from a provincial and federal one to a national one involving Quebec and Ontario. If Mr. Hu came to Canada as the leader of a nation reshaping the global economy, the Canadian response recognizes that our future prosperity depends upon connecting to it.
Paul Evans is the vice-chairman of the board and co-CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.