Election fever complicates plans Harper

OTTAWA — Bureaucrats are laying the groundwork for a return visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to China and India, The Canadian Press has learned.

OTTAWA — Bureaucrats are laying the groundwork for a return visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to China and India, The Canadian Press has learned.

But the planning is hampered by increasingly noisy election speculation on Parliament Hill.

Harper first travelled to India and China in late 2009, almost four years after winning power.

Analysts and business leaders said Harper waited too long to engage with the two Asian economic giants.

Harper was chided by Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao for taking too long to visit, when he finally did, in December 2009.

Harper welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao to Ottawa last June prior to the start of the G20 summit in Toronto.

Since them, Harper has been credited with making strides to repair relations with China, after some outspoken criticism of its human-rights record in the early years of his mandate.

Civil servants have been preparing the Asia visit for months now, shifting their efforts into high gear after Harper launched free-trade talks with India in November.

Government insiders are of the view that Harper benefits domestically when he travels internationally, since he has come to be well respected overseas.

However, the prime minister is hamstrung by the latest round of election sabre-rattling that his minority government now faces.

The Liberals and Bloc Quebecois say they will not support the next Conservative budget, expected in March. The NDP, whose support could spare Canadians another trip to the polls, are still on the fence over whether to support the budget.

Although travel preparations are underway, federal officials warn nothing is set in stone. Given Canada’s current political realities, the most likely time for Harper’s next trip to Asia would be early spring, during weeks when the House of Commons is not in session.

The need for Harper to travel is two-fold: Canada’s top trading partner — the United States — still faces a rough economic recovery, while top-level face time with Asian leaders, especially the Chinese, is seen as the key ingredient in greasing of the wheels of bilateral relations.

“It’s very important and I think the prime minister understands that,” said Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

“I believe he is planning to make a return visit to Beijing, possibly Delhi as well. I think it’s become part of the diplomatic ritual.

“I should hope that the bureaucracy is doing everything it can to find a date that works for the PM to go to Beijing.”

Woo said the Harper government needs to look at the relationship with China beyond economic terms.

“It has to do with recognizing China not simply as a rapidly growing market but as the principal player in a global power shift,” he said.

“The visit of Hu Jintao to Washington, D.C., last week underscores that something is happening that goes well beyond the rise of China as an economic power.”

Woo said Canada’s relations are back on an “even keel,” while the ties with India continue to be strengthened.

The Harper government hopes Canada’s economy could grow by between $6 billion and $15 billion annually if it concludes a successful comprehensive trade deal with India.

India and Canada commissioned a study last year that concluded a broad free-trade pact would benefit both countries. But the study noted some obstacles, including Canada’s usual desire for side-agreements to preserve environmental and labour standards. India prefers to leave those constraints out of trade deals.

Trade between the two countries was worth $4.2 billion in 2009, the highest ever, but still low compared with Canada’s other trading relationships.