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China is a crowded arena. And not just in terms of the country's massive 1.3 billion population, but also its business environment - where an onslaught of foreign companies and governments are vying to show off their economic might.

Canada has joined the pageantry with a number of trade missions this year.

New Brunswick's Minister of Business Victor Boudreau led a delegation to China in February, funded by a $110,000 Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency contribution and a $99,000 provincial government investment. In September, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson embarked on a 12-day trade mission to cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou that cost taxpayers an estimated $120,000.

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But do Canadian trade missions to China really pay off - or are they now passé in a country of breakneck change? Arguably, sending missions give mianzi, or face - an ever-important cultural tradition in China - demonstrating Canada's recognition of China's prestige in business. Trade missions may also help to boost Canada's weak business reputation in China, which primarily focuses on natural resources and leaves innovative made-in-Canada businesses unnoticed.

"[Chinese businesses]will go to the U.S., or countries in Europe first, because they are familiar with brands there and what they are capable of," says Richard Choi, executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. "Those countries have done enough to show off their muscle."

The problem of putting Canada into the Chinese spotlight is hardly new. That was the purpose, after all, of former prime minister Jean Chrétien's four separate Team Canada trade missions to China. Utilizing face-to-face communication - and a force of nearly 500 Canadian political and business representatives - Team Canada made a splash during its first visit in November of 1994, which was also the largest delegation of any kind to China following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

But that was then. According to a report published in the Canadian Journal of Economics in August, Canadian foreign trade missions - which are designed to bolster business relationships and increase bilateral trade - have been ineffective.

University of British Columbia researchers, Keith Head and John Ries, studied federal government-led trade missions between 1993 and 2003, examining trade before and after a mission, as well as trade of the target country compared with other nations where the government did not send delegations. The report contends there was no noticeable rise in trade as a result of Canadian trade missions.

Some in the business community disagree.

"They're useful on a number of levels," says Peter Harder, president of the Canada China Business Council. "It helps get mind share among decision makers. A Canadian trade mission reminds business and government leaders in China of our business interests and the opportunities we offer."

Yuen Pau Woo, president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, says political support can make a difference in the case of Canadian companies looking to land major state procurement contracts in China. At the same time, Mr. Woo adds that while the Team Canada model was creative and successful 10 to 15 years ago, that isn't the case today.

"It's a much more crowded arena with many delegations going to China every day," Mr. Woo says.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper hasn't led trade missions similar to those of the Chrétien era, provincial governments appear to be increasing their efforts. Three of Canada's Western premiers - British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach - visited Beijing and Shanghai as the "New West Partnership" in May, pushing trade and investment in the region's energy and natural resources.

Mr. Robertson's business mission showcased Vancouver's work in clean technology and digital media industries. Honing in on specialized sectors may help Vancouver businesses not only make contact with potential partners in China, but also in marketing specific Canadian brands and strengths.

"If you don't create the focus for the discussion, then you're not going to get the audience you need to move ahead," says Jeanette Jackson, CEO of Light-Based Technologies, an LED light control company based in Vancouver which was one of 22 businesses participating in the mission.

More promotion of Canada's brands is also required at the consumer level, says Phil Tozer, China general manager of Synaps International, a sales, marketing and distribution firm that works on bringing Canadian food products to China.

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He says countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France and Germany promote their food products more aggressively to people in China, whose spending power continues to rise. Other countries' governments and food producers are using a variety of marketing tools ranging from "A Taste of New Zealand" sampling booths at supermarkets, to large-scale food product shows for Chinese buyers.

"There are a lot of benefits that Canada should be marketing for its food products. We're safe and natural, and we have good seafood, beef and water. But our government and food producers don't do enough to promote this image, so it doesn't register with Chinese consumers."

From a business-to-business and investment point of view, Ms. Jackson adds that it's important for big Canadian brands to be better known in China's business landscape.

"People like to see that it's been done before," Ms. Jackson says, "and not necessarily the same thing that you're doing, but that a small, Canadian company has been able to become a truly international business.

"If you're from the tech community, it helps if you can walk through the door and say RIM was developed from Canada. You can say, 'That's why we can do it, too - we can become the next RIM in our industry.'"

The danger of simply promoting Canada's natural resources, rather than business-savvy traits such as its technological advancements and global interconnectivity, is that China won't realize how the two countries can be business partners.

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"The peril is having no recognition, no sense of national uniqueness ahead of your competitors, and a lack of perceptions of Canada's dynamism and attractiveness as a good business partner and place to invest," Mr. Harder says.

"At the moment, we're just not there; we're not in China's mind and not in that sense of excitement in being part of today's global opportunities."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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