07/13/2011 07:23 EDT | Updated 09/12/2011 05:12 EDT

Canada China Relations: John Baird Seeks To Improve Strained Relationship With Superpower


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - Call it going back to the future instead of a great leap forward.

John Baird's first trip to China as foreign affairs minister later this week will continue the Conservative government's efforts to improve strained relations with Beijing. The situation has improved in the last two years, but analysts say that progress has simply healed the wounds inflicted by the Tories between 2006 and 2009.

"We're basically back to where Canada was in 2005, trying to make sense of what a strategic partnership with China might be," said Paul Evans, an Asian issues expert at the Liu Institute for Global Issues in Vancouver.

Two weeks ago, Baird referred to the China relationship as a strategic partnership and declared to the business audience in Toronto that visiting there was a "huge priority."

Wenran Jiang, a China expert with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said Baird's speech set a positive new tone that will resonate well in Beijing. But the strategic partnership designation is something former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin set in motion in the dying days of his government in late 2005 when he hosted China's president.

"Everybody begins to talk about the golden age, everything is normal. It's not normal when you bring a relationship back in 2010 to the level of 2005 because in those five years the Chinese economy has grown by 60 per cent," Jiang said.

Baird will be in China from July 16-20. He'll also be tilling the ground for a second trip to the country by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, perhaps before the end of the year.

Baird will also attend a meeting of the ASEAN regional security forum on the Indonesian island of Bali following the China trip.

Evans and Jiang agreed that Sino-Canadian relations are back on a much more solid footing, but there's still much more work to be done. Unlike the Liberals before them, the Harper government has no overarching strategic plan on engaging China, whether on economic matters or pressing human rights.

While they laud Baird's decision to visit China so quickly after the Tories won a majority government, they are eager to see more meat on the bones of Ottawa's plan to engage Beijing either on Baird's trip or soon after.

Said Evans: "We're back to the beginning of five years ago without a stated strategic plan for what comes next."

During his recent speech in Toronto, Baird emphasized that his government would continue to push China on human rights. But he also struck a decidedly pro-trade tone.

"China is incredibly important to our future prosperity," Baird said. "My government gets it, and as Canada's new minister of foreign affairs, I get it."

After ignoring China for three years, the Harper government began paying attention to the world's fastest growing economy in early 2009, when a series of cabinet ministers began making trips there.

That culminated with Harper's own visit there at the end of 2009, but the trip was not without a significant hiccup. Harper was chided by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for taking so long to visit.

After winning power in 2006, Harper said he wouldn't sell out Canadians relations with China for the "almighty dollar." The Tories also speculated about Chinese corporate espionage, and bestowed Canadian citizenship on the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader who is despised and outlawed by China's communist leadership.

The provocations alarmed Canada's top business leaders, who warned it was bad for the economy to alienate China.

President Hu Jintao visited Ottawa last summer, bringing with him the largest Chinese delegation ever, ahead of the G8 and G20 summits, resetting a more positive tone.

But Canada still lacks a grand plan for China.

"It's a long learning curve. They finally figured out China is important to Canada, but they don't have a comprehensive strategy on China," said Jiang.

The Conservatives also suspended a human rights dialogue that the Liberals put in place with Chinese leaders, saying that it had accomplished little.

But Jiang says it was a regular forum for raising contentious issues with Chinese leaders.

"They have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Up to this point, the government has not done one single initiative on human rights."

Jiang said there doesn't need to be "an artificial trade off" between human rights and pursuing economic interests.

The billions of increased investment by China's state-owned enterprises in Alberta's oilsands are good for the Canadian economy and create jobs here, he said.

If there is any skittishness in the federal government about doing business in the oilsands with state-controlled enterprises, it certainly wasn't on display Tuesday when senior government officials briefed journalists on Baird's upcoming trip.

"We welcome investment," said one official, speaking on background. "We expect all investors in Canada to abide by the same rules of transparency that companies operate under."

Baird plans include a visit to Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in an attempt to establish a "personal relationship," officials said. He will also visit the Chinese commercial capital of Shanghai to give a keynote address to business leaders.

Evans hopes Baird offers more of a comprehensive strategy instead of "tactical and incremental adjustments" on economic issues. And he is also is looking for something more concrete on human rights.

"They've had five years of rhetoric but very little innovation and very little impact on the human rights side. They're going to have to tell Canadians how a comprehensive engagement strategy fits with that moral demand."

By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press