Trudeau Visits China: 6 Things To Watch

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As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau departs for his first official visit to China, Canada's second-largest trading partner, here are six things to watch.

How warm a welcome?

When Stephen Harper first went to China in 2009, the prime minister received a frosty reception and was famously chastised by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for not visiting sooner.

And that was when journalists were still in the room.

A senior official quipped afterwards that the reception was so frosty, icicles nearly formed on the mirrors in the room at the Great Hall of the People.

Trudeau has been critical of the Harper government's handling of the relationship.

justin trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with China's Ambassador to Canada Luo Zhaohui after being presented a photo of his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, meeting Chairman Mao Zedong, during a celebration of 45 years of Canada-China diplomatic relations, in Ottawa on Jan. 27, 2016. (Photo: Justin Tang/CP)

"Over the past government's mandate, unfortunately, relationships with China were somewhat inconstant. They went from hot to cold depending on the issue, depending on the day, it seemed," Trudeau said Monday.

By all accounts, Trudeau should receive a much different welcome.

"The name Trudeau is almost as good as being [revered Canadian doctor Norman] Bethune, because it was, after all, Pierre Trudeau who took the step to recognize China in 1971," said former diplomat Colin Robertson, who at one point was posted in Hong Kong.

Robertson noted Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping also have something in common: they are both sons of famous fathers.

"So he starts off well past first base, whereas Stephen Harper was still working his way to first base even when he got there."

Progress on a free trade deal?

As Canada's biggest trading partner behind the United States, China would like a free trade agreement with Canada.

The previous Conservative government produced studies on the idea that were positive, but not much has been done since.

What will Canada agree to during this visit? Exploratory talks? Or more study?

Robertson said he doesn't think the Trudeau government has decided yet, and that could be a problem as officials get ready to sit down with the Chinese.

"When you negotiate with the Chinese, despite the tea and buns, they are much more dragon than panda."

Canadian investment in Asian infrastructure

Beyond free trade, China would also like Canada to invest in its $100-billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The AIIB was created to support the development of infrastructure in China. Countries that invest in the bank give their country's firms preferential access to projects funded by the AIIB.

Canadian firms are keen to get a piece of this business and are hoping Trudeau will send a positive signal during this visit, said former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day, now a vice-president with the Canada-China Business Council.

"I think there's a huge opportunity for Canadian firms; large firms, mid-size firms. We're very well acquainted with issues related to developing infrastructure in cold weather and in extreme climates. We've got so much to offer there," Day said.

David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China, disagrees.

"I actually think we made the right decision in not joining," said Mulroney, who's now president of the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto. "China is, in my view, far from ready for hosting a major multilateral financial institution.

"As they were announcing the launch of the bank they were shutting down the website for Reuters, which is one of the premier financial media outlets in the world."

Asked about potential investment in the bank, senior Canadian government officials would only say, "We will have more to say on the trip."

Human rights and global security

Trudeau has promised to balance economic interests with human rights.

"What we want to do is set a very clear and constructive relationship with China that yes, looks at the potential economic benefits of better trade relationships, while at the same time ensuring that our voice is heard clearly on issues of human rights, of labour rights, of democracy, environmental stewardship," Trudeau said.

He will get a chance to raise thorny issues like human rights, canola exports and the espionage case of Canadian Kevin Garratt when he meets with the Chinese premier and president Wednesday in Beijing.

Day accompanied Harper on two of his visits to China, and he has no doubt Trudeau will raise these issues as well, in the appropriate way, behind closed doors.

"You can make headway sitting down around a table, eyeball to eyeball, and without trying to make political points," Day told CBC.

Mulroney adds the Chinese are very used to foreign leaders raising these issues.

"You want to address it in a non-confrontational way because you want the conversation to continue. And you want to nudge and move the Chinese system into a direction that's going to be helpful for Canada," he said.

Canada and the G20

China has promised to ratify the Paris Accord to fight climate change in advance of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, which begins Sept. 4.

There are media reports the U.S. will also sign, with China, two days before the international summit.

Canada has promised to ratify the accord by the end of the year. There have been no such reports it plans to do so in China.

Canadian officials are also expected to talk with European delegations about the Canada-EU free trade deal.

Reasonable expectations

The general advice for Trudeau seems to be to not rush into anything with China, but rather to focus on building a long-term relationship.

Day said both parties have an "assured sense" they'll be dealing with each other for at least the next several years, "so it gives some opportunity to build some types of relationships and decision-making that can have long-term effects and prosperity for Canadians."

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