Prime Minister Stephen Harper will consider major opposition to Chinese takeover

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Overwhelming opposition by Canadian voters to the acquisition by a Chinese company of a Canadian oilpatch giant could factor in to the federal government’s approvals process, Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to suggest Thursday.

An exclusive poll for QMI Agency published Thursday revealed that six in 10 Canadians think the government should spike the proposed $15-billion takeover of Calgary-based oil and gas producer Nexen by CNOOC Ltd., the Hong Kong-based company that is controlled by the government of communist China.

CNOOC won’t be able to buy Nexen without the green light from the federal government.

QMI Agency has learned that one of the items Harper and his cabinet are wrestling with as they consider the deal is reciprocity, the idea that if Chinese firms can buy Canadian assets, Canadian firms ought to have reciprocal rights to buy Chinese assets.

Right now, though, it is all but impossible for a Canadian firm to buy and own, for example, a mine or a piece of energy infrastructure in China.

Harper refused to comment on the Nexen transaction directly but when asked about public opinion on the deal and about the reciprocity issue, he acknowledged that these were “important questions.”

“I think those considerations need scrutiny and they need some clear long-term policy direction,” Harper told reporters during a visit Thursday to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

“Our government will take the time we have to properly scrutinize this transaction and to assess that if it is to go ahead, it will only go ahead if it is in the best long-term interest of the Canadian economy, not just net benefit for Canada, but in the best long-term interest of the Canadian economy, and that will be measured across a range of considerations, including some of the ones you’ve mentioned.”

The bid by CNOCC for Nexen is the single largest play for a foreign asset made by any Chinese company anywhere in the world. There has also been a concern, voiced quietly by some Conservative and industry insiders in Ottawa, that if the Chinese are able to buy Nexen — widely seen as a bit of underperformer in need of a management shakeup — then the seemingly bottomless cheque book of the Chinese government could be hauled out to make a play for some top-tier Canadian assets like oil and gas producer Suncor or uranium miner Cameco.

Partly because the Nexen deal involves some strategic assets for the Canadian economy, Harper and his inner circle of cabinet advisors held a long closed-door meeting on Parliament Hill two weeks ago to hash out some of the issues at stake.

“This is a significant transaction with significant implications for the Canadian economy, both for today and for the long term,” Harper said Thursday. “I think those considerations need scrutiny and they need some clear long-term policy direction.”

— With files from Jessica Murphy