Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in Beijing on his first official visit to China. It would be fair to say it hasn’t attracted quite the public attention of another recent first visit – but considering the widespread misrepresentation in the English-language press of Obama’s trip as a bumbling failure, that may be for the best.
Harper’s visit is important for a number of reasons. The first, and most important, is nothing less than the repairing of Canada-China relations, damaged largely through the actions of Harper’s own government. From being called "China’s best friend in the world" by then-Premier Zhu Rongji in 1998, Canada has seen its reputation here tarnished by Harper’s deviation from the country’s historical approach to China relations.
Between 1970, when Canada officially recognized Beijing, and 2006, when Harper came to power as the head of a Conservative minority government, Canada mostly pursued a policy of friendly engagement with China. This was good for Canadian businesses, good for Canadian politics and ultimately good for China. While Canada could never claim to have much direct influence in Beijing, its powers of moral suasion as a trusted trade partner were not insignificant, and the country enjoyed a good reputation in Beijing and among Chinese people.
Harper’s decision to openly criticize Beijing’s human rights record, in part a domestic political ploy to signal a break from Liberal foreign policy, brought the friendly relations to a halt. Canadian businesses noted a distinct chilling of the business environment, and when Harper and Hu Jintao shared a brief conversation at an APEC summit in 2007 – that the meeting would be held at all was for a time in doubt – Chinese officials denied that sensitive issues such as human rights had been discussed.
To its credit, Harper’s government has gradually realized that openly criticizing China’s policies while attempting to improve trade relations will lead to success on neither front. While he has said he will continue to be firm on Canada’s position on human rights on this trip, it is likely that he will do so in a less direct way. Whether or not that will have a real effect on the state of human rights in China is debatable, but at least leaders in Beijing will be more inclined to listen.
Beijing may also be more open to hear his suggestions because of another goal of Harper’s trip: increasing Chinese investment in Canadian mineral and energy resources. Harper is well aware of China’s search around the world to support its voracious demand; in addition to vast resources, Canada is blessed with a relative lack of the kind of reactionary sentiment (which CNOOC’s all-cash, government-financed bid did little to allay) that blocked China National Overseas Oil Co’s (CNOOC) acquisition of American energy firm Unocal back in 2005. It’s hard to imagine that Chinese firms won’t leap at the opportunity to secure resources in a country with a stable political and economic environment.