Stephen Harper calls on China to win Canada's trust

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Conceding that Canadians are nervous about the prospects of Chinese government-controlled firms snapping up Canadian natural resources, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday that it will be up to the Chinese to convince Canadians they will play by our rules.

Chinese state-owned firms have poured billions of dollars into Canadian companies, particularly in the resource sector. And now, a Chinese firm, CNOOC, has made a $15-billion bid to buy Nexen Inc. of Calgary, an oil-and-gas producer that owns rights to mines in Alberta’s oilsands.

That deal is subject to government approval and has produced some sharp divisions within Harper’s cabinet, with some favouring the deal and others ready to nix it.

In an interview here by the Bloomberg News agency staged for its well-heeled business clients, Harper was asked several times about the Nexen deal but refused to discuss any specifics about that review, saying he did not want to prejudice the outcome of that review one way or the other.

But, in a nod to a poll done for Sun News Network by Abacus Data which showed a healthy majority of Canadians in all parts of the country oppose the takeover of Nexen by CNOOC, Harper said the Chinese must demonstrate that they deserve the trust of Canadians if they want to buy Canadian assets.

"I know the polling data on this," Harper said. "To the extent that there’s some distrust … I think it’s incumbent upon the Chinese to indicate as the relationship goes forward to play by the same rules.

"We have rules in Canada and those rules are respected and we play by Canadian rules in Canada," Harper said.

Harper also noted that CNOOC’s bid for Nexen is special because CNOOC is, for all intents and purposes, an arm of China’s communist government.

"One of the issues that does makes this somewhat different – and it is a different category under the [Foreign Investment Review] Act – is that we’re dealing with a state-owned enterprise."

Harper was in Vancouver only for the afternoon on his way from Ottawa to Vladivostok, Russia, for the weekend APEC leaders meeting, the annual summit of Pacific nation leaders.

At APEC, Harper is expected to have a one-on-one with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Asked what he and Hu plan to talk about, Harper again declined to provide specifics – he did not, for example, mention the Nexen deal by name – but said that he and Hu would review the progress the two countries have made improving their trading relationship and look what more could be done.