07/20/2011 09:28 EDT | Updated 09/19/2011 05:12 EDT

John Baird Says China-Canada Relationship Warming


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says Canada-China relations are warming and can be further improved by face-to-face dialogue.

Baird finished a four-day trip to China on Wednesday after meetings with senior government officials and business leaders.

In a conference call from Shanghai, Baird said relations between the two countries have entered a new era in recent years and he wants to build on that.

Chinese relations cooled in the early years of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. A Harper meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2007 irked Chinese authorities, who routinely revile the Tibetan spiritual leader as a separatist who wants to split Tibet from China.

The Canada-China relationship improved after the prime minister visited Beijing in 2009.

Now, Baird said, China is a strategic partner in the fields of energy, natural resources and international affairs and the two countries can both benefit from closer and deeper ties.

While there are differences of opinion on issues such as human rights, Baird said it's better to discuss things face-to-face than to stand back and preach.

"You're more likely to be able to project Canadian values abroad by engaging than by staying in Ottawa," he said.

"We have two primary goals in Canadian foreign policy. One is to promote Canadian interests and the other is to promote Canadian values and I believe we can do both at the same time."

He said he raised human rights concerns during his meetings with Chinese authorities and stressed the importance which Canadians place on things such as religious freedom.

"We've had substantial concerns with issues like human rights, a wide variety of those, and where appropriate I've taken the opportunity to raise our concerns."

In a formal statement issued at the end of his visit, he described the purpose of his China talks:

"The aim of this trip was to advance Canada’s strategic partnership with a country that is both a clear priority for our government and important to our economy.

"I look forward to continuing to build a partnership with China that advances our common interests, Canadian values and the friendship between the peoples of our two countries."

During his visit, Baird met Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Executive Vice-Premier Li Keqiang.

Among other things, they discussed investment and energy issues, as well as education and tourism.

Baird said the latter offer a way to showcase Canadian values face-to-face.

"We have more than 61,000 Chinese students who are studying in Canada, who will be able to be immersed every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Canadian values and in Canadian society. And that's constructive," he said.

"The more Chinese tourists we have visit Canada, the more they can experience Canadian life, Canadian society, can see the value we place on values and principles."

The minister hinted that another Harper visit may be in the works.

"Obviously the prime minister had a very successful visit a few years ago. In the next few years, we'd obviously like to see him return."

A visit had been tentatively set for this spring, but the federal election derailed the plans.

Baird now heads for Bali, Indonesia, for meetings with ministers from southeast Asian countries.