Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, accompanied by Alibaba's Chairman Jack Ma, visits Alibaba's Xixi Park in Hangzhou to attend the opening ceremony of Tmall's Canadian Pavilion on September 3 (XINHUA)
For Canadians, the headlines breaking from China in early September seemed to come from a different decade, even a different century.
A visiting Canadian prime minister was talking about the importance of strengthening relations with China across a wide range of fields, from trade and investment to technology and culture.
The prime minister was even a Liberal named Trudeau, although in this case it was not Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who first reached out to China in the early 1970s to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic, but his son Justin. Justin Trudeau became Canada's leader when he ended a decade of Conservative rule by winning the October 2015 federal election. He took an eight-day trip to China from the end of August to September 6.
"I believe my official visit to China has placed the Canada-China relationship on a renewed and stable track that will foster greater economic and social benefits for both our peoples," Trudeau said before returning home. "I would like to thank my Chinese hosts for their warm welcome, for sharing their views on all issues in a respectful and productive way, and for facilitating the exciting new bilateral initiatives."
His friendly comments, which were more than reciprocated in Chinese reports on the visit, contrasted with the cool and often chilly tone in bilateral relations while Stephen Harper, a Conservative, was Canada's prime minister from 2006 to 2015.
The Chongqing Morning Post gushed in a blog post: "He has curly hair, deep eyes, a handsome face and tight muscles. Today we introduce everyone to a Hollywood star--oops, that's not right--the prime minister of Canada!"
Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, said Trudeau's impact on Sino-Canadian relations "is a miracle to me...You can see and feel the spark, energy and confidence of Canada. We believe he is the future of Canada."
Tight muscles go only so far, however. What was the substance of the visit?
For Canada, which is wrestling with a sluggish domestic economy, the major accomplishment was the signing of 56 trade deals worth more than $1.2 billion. China is Canada's second largest trading partner after the United States, and China enjoys a massive trade surplus of more than $35 billion.
Canada also secured an indefinite delay in Beijing's September 1 deadline to enforce rules that could have restricted imports of Canadian canola oil, which are worth almost $4 billion a year. And Alibaba announced the launch of a Canadian "pavilion" on its Tmall retail platform that will connect Canadian companies to Chinese consumers.
In turn, Canada announced its intention to join the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Chinese-led initiative meant to complement major global financial institutions such as the World Bank. Like them, the bank will focus on providing capital for major infrastructure projects in fields such as transportation, energy generation and telecommunications.
The new bank has been a source of discord between China and the United States, with Washington lobbying its allies not to participate. However, Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who was traveling with Trudeau, told a news conference that "Canada's membership will generate commercial opportunities for Canadian companies, create good jobs and contribute to global economic growth... Participation in the bank is clearly in Canada's best interests."
AIIB President Jin Liqun, who joined Morneau at the news conference, called the Canadian announcement a vote of confidence.
"This decision also indicates that Canada, like many new applicants, affirms the way this new bank is being run in the first eight months of operation and trusts in the bank's unswerving commitment in the years to come," he said.
In another nod toward Chinese interests, Trudeau indicated a willingness to revisit the issue of restrictions on investment in Canada by Chinese state-owned enterprises, which were put in place by the Harper government.
"We need to draw in global investment as a way of being able to properly develop our resources in ways that are going to create a lot of jobs in Canada," Trudeau asserted.
"Yes, we have to think about it in terms of what are the benefits, what are the labor standards, what are the environmental impacts. But I don't think that anyone can imagine that we would do better by closing ourselves off from the world."
This was in keeping with his emphasis throughout the visit, and during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, on the need for free trade and open markets. Canada even remains keen to explore the possibility of a free trade agreement with China, although a senior Canadian official noted that, despite ongoing technical discussions between Ottawa and Beijing, no formal negotiations in that regard are under way.
Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau (left) shakes hands with Asian Infrastructure Development Bank President Jin Liqun at a joint press conference in Beijing on August 31 (XINHUA)
An evolving relationship
This wave of mutual understanding seems a far cry from Canada's conservative years, although in reality the substance of Sino-Canadian relations never changed very much. This point was highlighted by former Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who traveled to China more than a dozen times while in office.
"I tend to chuckle right out loud when I hear Trudeau talk about the chill that was the Canada-China relationship," Ritz said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
He cited the Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement, signed in 2012, which significantly expanded trade (notably in agriculture) during Conservative rule, and increased tourism and daily flights between the two countries.
Still, the fact remains that Harper's government tilted back toward Canada's traditional allies, such as the United States and Britain, rather than reaching out to emerging powers in Asia and Africa. That pivot created tension in Sino-Canadian relations.
Compared with his predecessor, Trudeau clearly made economic interests the priority: "Any economic strategy that ignores China, or that treats that valuable relationship as anything less than critically important, is not just short-sighted, it's irresponsible," he claimed.
International affairs rarely rouse the Canadian public, but relations with China have been surprisingly contentious over the years. In the 1990s under former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, both sides experienced the "golden age" of the Sino-Canadian relationship. But the trend was reversed under Harper, with business groups bemoaning government squandering of the good will built up during the Chrétien years.
In the wake of the Trudeau visit, an editorial in the Liberal-leaning Toronto Star complimented Trudeau on setting "a steady new tone for relations between Ottawa and Beijing."
By all objective measures, the Trudeau visit was a considerable success, with the economic agreements adding substance to the friendly rhetoric. But we have been here before: In 1998, then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji went as far as calling Canada China's "best friend" in the world. Less than a decade later, a chill had set in. Both sides will need to take further steps and summon the courage to engage in honest dialogue if a new "golden age" is to become a reality.
The author is a former editor of the Toronto Star's opinion page and a former senior advisor at Beijing Review
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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