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Business Commentary Canada must embrace Chinese investment to be a global player

Sandra Pupatello is a former Ontario minister of economic development and trade, and a strategic adviser at PwC for industry, global markets and the public sector.

It looks like Canada is getting its mojo back in international affairs. The Chinese Premier's visit couldn't have been a better example of a mix of serious business deals, delicate justice deliberation and plain old friendship.

Canada has talked a good game about wanting to be a global player. Now, with an opportunity within our grasp, we need to act. With Premier Li Keqiang's arrival in Canada this week – less than a month after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's China visit – it's clear that both countries want and need this relationship to flourish.

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Maybe while the world is consumed with the noise of anti-trade sentiment in the United States and Europe, Ottawa can aggressively chase trade agreements that benefit Canadians.

Like all trading relationships, this comes with some negotiated rules of engagement on an array of issues: environmental co-operation, legal and judicial collaboration, the movement of our people and goods. This is no small task, but we have to think big and acknowledge the economic realities and fierce competition around us. If Canada stakes an ambitious claim, it only stands to gain from continuing to bolster its relationship with its second-largest single-country trading partner.

Some people will remember the anti-Asian sentiment of the 1980s, which dissipated when Toyota and Honda made serious investments and employed thousands of Canadians to build cars here. This can serve as a lesson to the government as it negotiates. Canada should consider what it wants – and it should want a Chinese car company. Our auto parts industry already builds for companies in China, so why not provide those parts for Chinese factories here?

It would not be that outrageous for Alibaba to have a North American headquarters in one of our leading digital hubs. A growing wealthier Chinese middle class that demands more in food safety and more protein would be well served by Atlantic processed seafood and Alberta's famous beef.

Chinese investment in Canada has been considerable; just last month, Chinese and Canadian firms signed deals worth more than $1.2-billion.

Historically, these deals have focused on energy and mining through state-owned enterprises. Now, private Chinese companies are taking the lead and diversifying investments with a focus on commercial real estate, high tech, health care and agriculture.

As well, Mr. Trudeau's announcement that Canada intends to become the first North American member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is widely regarded as a "win" for Canada and its role in the global economy. Canadian firms such as SNC-Lavalin, Aecon and Bombardier would relish building more Asian infrastructure. Thousands of people employed across Canada by these iconic companies would benefit.

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Renewed political alignment has encouraged Chinese investment. Companies from China with international influence continue to inject much-needed capital into Canada's economy, and the shareholders of these companies are reaping the benefits and creating jobs. Cirque du Soleil is expanding its reach to Shanghai. Anbang Insurance Group is investing in Canadian commercial real estate and has committed to local Canadian employment.

Perhaps the largest job creator so far is Huawei, with 350 researchers in Ottawa and 350 more in Markham, Ont. China is calling, and we need to pick up the phone.

There are valid criticisms about this investment and our trading relationship with China. But for every valid critique, there is misinformation and exaggeration that paints an unfair picture. That's why organizations such as the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (where I am a board member) are leading the way in research and analysis on Canada-Asia relations – research that helps inform public policy and the ongoing Canada-China discourse.

To solve and tackle these tough economic issues, we must be armed with accurate information and, most important, keep the channels of communication and dialogue open.

That is why Mr. Li's visit is important.

We will likely acknowledge our differences and challenges, but use strategic economic and diplomatic channels to find common ground.

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Canada is one of the safest, most secure and most stable countries in the world; China knows this. This is our competitive advantage.

We must leverage these qualities and embrace China's investment to ultimately secure Canada's place as a global economic leader.

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