OTTAWA — More than four decades after his father first began paving the way in the 1970s, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embarked Monday on his first official visit to China, with both countries keen to forge ever-stronger economic ties.
Trudeau, travelling with wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and seven-year-old daughter Ella-Grace, said last week that he hopes the visit provides the opportunity to "reset" the relationship between the two countries.
China, the world's new economic superpower, sees the dawn of a new Trudeau era in Canada as a "new opportunity" to strengthen ties between the two countries, Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui said in an interview last week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire, and daughter Ella-Grace wave as they board a government plane in Ottawa on Aug. 29, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Canada's relationship with China under the Harper government was at times inconsistent, many experts say. Historically, Luo acknowledged China has had warmer connections with Canada's Liberal-led governments.
Indeed, the Chinese consider the Jean Chretien era of the 1990s as the "golden years" in their business dealings with Canada, he added.
Nor has the country forgotten how Trudeau's father, Pierre Trudeau, was among the first western leaders to recognize "new China" when he established diplomatic ties in 1970, later becoming the first Canadian PM to travel there in 1973.
The Liberal love-in, however, has at least one former Harper cabinet minister crying foul.
Ex-minister defends Tory record
Gerry Ritz, a former agriculture minister and veteran of some 15 trips to the east Asian country, said he laughs out loud when he hears Trudeau describe a chill in Canada-China relations.
Ritz suggested there is still room for Canada to forge a free trade deal with China, even though government officials have played down any notion that such a deal could be on the table.
In an online poll conducted in June and July and commissioned by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, 46 per cent of respondents said they would support a free trade agreement, compared with 36 per cent in a similar 2014 poll.
The exact same percentage of respondents opposed such a deal, although that's down from 50 per cent in 2014.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on June 1, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Trudeau's visit is scheduled to include meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, who is scheduled to pay a visit to Canada sometime in late September.
His itinerary will be packed with business-related meetings. as well as the G20 leaders' summit. Between Aug. 30 and Sept. 7, he will make stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Hong Kong.
All the while, he will have to navigate several ongoing irritants.
Canola issue on the table
In his meetings with Xi and Li, Trudeau is expected to discuss a dispute over Chinese rule changes that could affect Canada's multibillion-dollar canola exports.
He also plans to raise the issue of jailed Canadian Kevin Garratt, who was arrested in China two years ago for espionage. The prime minister has said there's no evidence to support the allegations.
Talks with China always call for an especially delicate form of diplomacy. Ritz offered Trudeau some advice when broaching China's less-than-stellar human rights record: don't do it in public.
"They take the criticism and recognize the fact they're a global entity and that social networks as well as newscasts and so on like that — there's a lot more coverage of everything that happens," he said.
Human rights discussions
"They have to realize at some point they have to change the way they handle their own population and the way they handle outsiders trying to invest in that economy.
"They do take that as constructive criticism. They may not like it."
The Conservatives made progress with China, Ritz added, and still held them to account on labour standards, the environment and human rights.
"We didn't pick and choose," he said. "We were very firm in our dealings with China."
Visiting high school with Yao Ming
Trudeau and many business leaders argue that Canada has much to gain from closer economic ties with a rapidly growing economy and middle class in China, which is already Canada's second-largest trading partner.
Trudeau's schedule includes meetings with the China Entrepreneur Club, Canada China Business Council, the Chinese firm Fosun, known for its investment in Cirque de Soleil, women entrepreneurs in China and Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba.
The prime minister will also visit a high school with former NBA basketball player Yao Ming; take a boat cruise to highlight tourism opportunities in Canada; visit to the Great Wall of China; and pay tribute to Canadian soldiers who defended Hong Kong during the Second World War.