Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper left for China yesterday, facing the delicate task of improving economic ties with Canada’s second-largest trading partner without sparking voter backlash or a revolt within his own party a year ahead of an election.
Dogged by low approval ratings, a divided cabinet and popular opposition to closer ties with the Asian giant, Harper needs to come away with notable victories — such as the release of a detained Canadian couple — to be able to count the trip a success.
Whether he can depends on Beijing, which is unhappy about Canadian accusations of hacking and what it considers a less-than-welcoming investment approach.
The stakes are high for Harper, who last went to China in February 2012 and ended a successful visit by promising that Ottawa would do all it could to meet Chinese demand for oil.
Little has gone right since then, and he is now under pressure to boost ties with China and help a Canadian economy that is still struggling to create jobs in the wake of the 2008 recession.
“China represents tremendous opportunities for Canada,” Harper said last week, adding that he wants to help Canadian businesses “truly take advantage of China’s large, diverse and dynamic economy.”
The friendly remarks contrast with Canada’s public denunciation in July of what it said was an attempt by alleged Chinese hackers to break into a key government computer network.
Days later, Chinese security authorities detained a Canadian Christian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, near the North Korean border.
The arrests sparked the concern of legislators in Canada’s ruling Conservative Party, who have long been wary of getting too close to China.
The major opponent of rapprochement with China is Canadian Minister of Employment Jason Kenney, widely regarded as the front-runner to replace Harper one day.
One Conservative source said Kenney had made it clear he did not want the visit to go ahead as long as the Garratts were still in jail.
The Conservatives draw significant support from part of Canada’s Christian community and there are bound to be questions if the couple is not released near the time of the visit.
The sensitivities surrounding the trip are reflected in the careful way it has been constructed.
The business itinerary of the five-day visit comes first, with Harper spending two days in the industrial center of Hangzhou before traveling to Beijing, a notable departure from the traditional pomp and circumstance that would greet the start of a state visit.
Harper is “keen to avoid the photos of flags and handshake, the bad visuals of an overly cozy relationship,” said Brock University professor Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served two tours in China.
Burton told reporters that he was surprised that the trip was going ahead, given the bilateral tensions.
Harper’s biggest obstacle is perhaps his weak bargaining position. While China views Canada as a stable source of energy and resources to fuel its economic growth, it also has options if Canada does not meet it halfway on trade, regulation and investment access.
While Harper is not expected to change any domestic rules to boost Chinese investment, he arrives in China hoping to show corporate interests that the Conservatives are not standing in the way of prosperity for the resource sector.
However, pleasing corporate leaders and business groups — a vital base of support ahead of the election expected next year — risks alienating many Canadian voters who view China with suspicion and Chinese foreign investment with hostility.
The concerns derive from restrictions on religious freedom and human rights in China, as well as practical worries about Chinese state influence in Canada’s resource sector. Last week, Canada’s largest school district rejected a planned partnership with China’s government-funded Confucius Institute.
The delicate trip to China might present “more downside than upside” for Canada’s election-bound prime minister, Burton said.
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