A Harper-in-China moment

Share Adjust Comment Print

In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China. Nixon was able to break that barrier because of his years as a staunch anti-communist; American voters trusted him not to give away the store to the ChiComs.

There’s even a colloquialism in politics now — a “Nixon-in-China moment” — to describe an uncharacteristic move that nonetheless can be trusted. Perhaps we need our own made-in-Canada colloquialism — a Harper-in-China moment — given the rapid advances the federal Tories are making in Canada-China trade.

Recall that for his first three-and-a-half years in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was roundly criticized by the Liberals and New Democrats for “deliberately antagonizing” China.

When he first came to office in 2006, Harper exclaimed that he wouldn’t sell out Canadian interests in China just for the “almighty dollar.” He avoided meeting Chinese leaders, criticized Beijing’s human rights record, stood up for dissidents jailed by the Chinese regime and sided with Tibet when Beijing cracked down on protests there. He refused to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics and infuriated China by conferring honorary Canadian citizenship on the Dalai Lama, a staunch foe of China’s authoritarian government.

At the time, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae insisted that this “deliberate decision” to ignore the relationship with China and “to assert that it had no particular importance” meant Canada and Canadian businesses were “paying a very, very heavy price.”

Really? Maybe standing up to the Chinese has made Beijing take Canada seriously. (Then again, maybe they’re taking us seriously because of all the oil we have under our soil — oil they need to fuel their rapid expansion.)

Whatever the reason, in the last three years China has named Canada a “preferred tourist destination,” making it easier for Chinese tourists to get permission from their government to visit us. Beijing has also opened a consulate in Montreal. And, of course, at the APEC summit in Russia over the weekend, Canada and China signed the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement that seeks to protect the legal rights of Canadian companies doing business in China.

That accord should make it easier, for instance, for Canada’s Manulife Financial and Scotiabank to buy major stakes in three Chinese banks and for Bank of Nova Scotia to acquire the Bank of Guangzhou — all currently pending sales.

Most telling of all, though, is the fact that since the Tories replaced the Liberals in early 2006, Canada’s trade with China has almost doubled to nearly $66 billion annually.

Too much of that is still China-to-Canada imports ($50 billion), not enough Canada-to-China exports. But last weekend’s agreement, plus new talks about a full free-trade agreement, plus the possibility of a pipeline from Alberta’s oilsands to a terminal on the Pacific coast all offer hope of still more two-way trade to come.

A Canada-China free trade agreement wouldn’t be without serious risks. Can we really trust the Chinese government to honour legal agreements protecting Canadian investments there when, in the future, those investments conflict with Chinese state policy? (Then again, can they trust us not to nationalize Chinese investments here if, say, the NDP become the national government?)

China is slowly being taken over by a new generation of leaders with more recollection of freer markets than of Mao, so there is a good chance China will grow more free with time, rather than reverting to its old ways.

The irony is, all of this is being presided over by the prime minister who, just three years ago, the opposition were shrieking had blown all the solid groundwork that had been laid by previous PMs.