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27-09-06, 23:34
Chinese puzzled by aloofness from Ottawa
Missing meetings and cancelled trips have cooled off the 'partnership,' to Beijing's concern

GEOFFREY YORK AND BRIAN LAGHI

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

BEIJING and OTTAWA — A year ago, in a solemn signing ceremony, China and Canada announced a "strategic partnership" -- the highest political relationship that Beijing can bestow on a friendly country.

But a few months later, something happened in Canada that never happens in China: a democratic change of government. Since then, the new government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has deliberately avoided the "strategic partnership" term. His China policy has fallen into limbo, with the two sides barely talking.

The high-level committee that was supposed to promote the partnership -- the Strategic Working Group, consisting of senior officials in both countries -- has not held any meetings since August, 2005, and no date has been set for another meeting.

Beijing remains keen on the partnership, but Ottawa has been cool or uninterested. "It's going nowhere," one participant said privately.


The working group's mandate includes moving forward on issues such as trade and investment, counterterrorism, health issues under the World Health Organization, and increased bilateral air traffic. But Canadian officials say China is "not on the radar" of Mr. Harper's government because of its preoccupation with the United States and Afghanistan and because of disagreements about China within the Conservative caucus.

The government has still not sent a cabinet minister to China more than eight months after winning power, according to Foreign Affairs officials. Several cabinet ministers have made plans to go, notified the Chinese government of their intentions, then abruptly cancelled their trips, to Beijing's puzzlement.

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn might travel to Beijing in November to attend a mining conference and a heavy oil conference. But even that visit is not confirmed yet, officials say. And Mr. Lunn is hardly the senior cabinet minister that China would expect Canada to send.

Even if that lack of a visit can be put down to the minority situation the Tories find themselves in, a spokesperson for Canadian business said the lack of communication is a concern because the Chinese place great importance on developing deep contacts over time.

"I would certainly counsel the government to schedule a visit by a senior minister at an early date," said Perrin Beatty, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. "Particularly in a country like China, it is important at a government-to-government level that it be demonstrated that there's an interest in managing relationships."

Mr. Beatty said reducing communications with China is a substantial risk for Canadian businesses because Beijing has overwhelming influence over who its corporations do business with.

Recently, Canadian business people and academics also expressed quiet concern when it emerged that Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay had not yet met with Chinese Ambassador Lu Shumin.

Officials now tell The Globe and Mail that Mr. MacKay spoke with Mr. Lu about 10 days ago and has instructed Foreign Affairs staff to schedule a meeting. The minister also met with his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, while in New York last week. Sources said Mr. MacKay pressed Mr. Li about the case of Huseyinl Celil, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in China, and the two men also discussed the trade relationship between the two countries and its growing importance.

Still, the concerns outnumber the recent positives. They include a decision by Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary, Jason Kenney, to meet recently with the Dalai Lama and the fact that a substantial chunk of the Tory caucus supported efforts, while in opposition, to push forward with a bill designed to give Taiwan greater recognition in diplomatic and political affairs.

Finally, the federal cabinet itself is said to have a difference of opinion over how aggressively to promote relations. Sources said International Trade Minister David Emerson is a voice in cabinet for a more bullish policy, saying this spring that Canada needs to boost foreign investment in China. By contrast, Security Minister Stockwell Day would prefer to put a stronger focus on pressing China to deal with its human-rights record.

The Conservative approach is a far cry from the first year or so of the Liberal rule of Jean Chrétien. Twelve years ago, one year into his first term, Mr. Chrétien led nine premiers, two territorial leaders, 350 business executives and other municipal politicians on a trade mission in an effort to exploit the Chinese market.

Peter Donolo, then Mr. Chrétien's communications director, said the prime minister was trying to capitalize on the move by Pierre Trudeau in 1970 to establish diplomatic relations.

"[Mr. Chrétien] understood that a country like Canada doesn't necessarily have a lot of levers, but, in this case we had one that was gift-wrapped and that was the opening of Pierre Trudeau," said Mr. Donolo. "He was determined to seize on that."

Mr. Chrétien continued with the visits later during his tenure, while his successor, Paul Martin, visited China a little over a year after he became prime minister.

Yuchao Zhu, a political scientist at the University of Regina, said the conundrum, from China's viewpoint, is that the Chinese don't know what is in Mr. Harper's new China policy.

"The Harper government seems to have simply left Sino-Canada relations in the cold since last January," he said. "The political relationship seems to be at a definite low point. The Chinese are certainly frustrated with the current Canadian government."

Yuen Pau Woo, head of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, says Mr. Harper's government is "struggling" with the China issue. The Conservative caucus, like the Canadian public in general, is divided on whether to emphasize trade, human rights or some other priority in its China policy, he said.

In addition to the Ottawa's seeming indifference to China, the relationship is bedevilled by a long list of irritants and tensions. The latest source of friction is Parliament's decision to award an honorary Canadian citizenship to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

The award was pushed by the evangelical Christian wing of the Conservative caucus, which regards the Dalai Lama as a hero. But China, which considers the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist, was outraged by the decision. Its official news agency quoted four Chinese scholars who predicted it would hurt Canada's relations with China.

Another key source of tension is China's most-wanted fugitive, the accused smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing, who continues to live in Vancouver while he fights a legal battle for refugee status. Chinese officials are irked by Mr. Lai's continuing ability to stay in Canada, and they regularly demand information about him in their meetings with Canadian diplomats.

Among the other tensions and disputes between the two countries: a report by Canadian lawyers David Matas and David Kilgour supporting a Falun Gong allegation that China executed thousands of prisoners for their internal organs; a continuing stalemate on a tourism agreement; and an allegation by Mr. Harper's government that China has engaged in industrial spying on Canada.

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