POLITICS

Harper and China's Xi to take the measure of each other at Beijing meeting

11/08/2014 07:00 EST | Updated 01/08/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - They may have crossed paths over the past year, but this weekend will mark the first real chance for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chinese President Xi Jinping to size each other up.

The implications for Canada are clear: Harper has staked his government's economic agenda on expanding trade and investment with Asia, which means closing a massive trade deficit with China.

While they've met at various international summits and meetings in the last year, much will depend on the outcome of Harper's face to face meeting with Xi in the Chinese capital.

"He's had exchanges with Xi but this is a moment, I think, of mutual stock taking, as far as you can do it with a Chinese president," said Paul Evans, an international relations professor at the University of British Columbia and author of the book "Engaging China."

Ottawa has been watching Xi closely ever since his ascension to the Communist party leadership in late 2012.

In March 2013, top level Canadian bureaucrats gathered for a breakfast brainstorming session on the man who had succeeded Hu Jintao in the Chinese presidency.

"Important for Canadian interests that the Chinese transition was smooth, but unclear what policy implications of new team will be," said the partially censored document, dated March 20, 2013, released under the Access to Information Act.

"No reason to expect accommodating stance on foreign policy issue."

The document doesn't give specifics. But a year and half later,+ that assessment has proven partially true, at least in terms of sovereignty and the protection of Chinese interests, Evans said.

"This is not a person who is pulling in his horns or taking a more accommodating stand on China's national sovereignty questions," he said — a reference to China's aggressive naval posture towards the likes of Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

In assessing Xi's first few months in power, the Canadian memo made a few observations that have stood the test of time.

"Change in style and tone from Hu. Gave folksy and pragmatic speech upon selection," it said.

"Spoke about need for party to address China's economic and social ills, and addressed official corruption and abuse of power. Focused on visible anti-corruption measures … But much about Xi's intentions, agenda remain to be revealed."

Evans said it is notable that Xi has accumulated more power inside his party and the government than any of his immediate predecessors.

"He has really emphasized party discipline and anti-corruption. But this is not Maoist-style cult-of-personality stuff," Evans said.

"The anti-corruption campaign is a battle within the communist party. What's unfolding is that Xi is strengthening party mechanisms. This is a guy who's trying to use the party to protect its legitimacy with the people."

The memo said Ottawa should undertake a vigorous engagement with the new Chinese leadership, including Xi's broader cabinet.

"As ministers visit China in support of priorities within their portfolio, should work to ensure their program takes advantage of broader network-building opportunities to further bilateral relationship as a whole."

Harper is currently being accompanied by Trade Minister Ed Fast, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Industry Minister James Moore, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, and Alice Wong, the minister of state for seniors.

Canada can draw some clues from the recently completed 18th Communist Party Congress, which stressed the message of building a prosperous and happy China, Evans said.

"There's a lot of focus on the 'China Dream,' both its international and its domestic implications."

A recent op-ed in the journal East Asia Forum noted the "extremely delicate balance that Xi must maintain between international co-operation and a hard-line foreign policy."

Satoshi Amako, the former dean of Asia Pacific Studies at Tokyo's Waseda University, wrote that despite talk of noble-minded pursuits such as "peace, international trust, tolerance and co-operation," Xi offered up some much tougher rhetoric on security and diplomacy.

The message there, he said, "emphasized building 'powerful armies in accordance with (China's) status in international society' and that China should resolutely defend its maritime resources and 'build a strong maritime nation'."