As his autumn of Asian travel ended Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced stern warnings to never again shortchange Canada’s economic relations with China or its neighbours.
Harper wrapped his latest two-country Asian tour in less than a month in South Korea by emphasizing that Canada must look to the East for economic opportunities because its traditional trading partners, the U.S. and Europe, will be mired in slow growth for some time.
“We have every reason to believe that the markets in the United States and Europe … will probably experience continued slower growth for some time to come,” Harper said after a two-hour meeting with Korean President Lee Myung-bak,.
“So the great opportunity is obviously in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Harper also completed a swing through Singapore and India last month. On Tuesday, Harper said Asia is becoming the world’s economic engine and Canada has the natural resources the region needs to fuel its economies.
But the prime minister faced criticism for essentially ignoring Asia in his early days in power and being unnecessarily provocative towards China.
Harper was also urged in the strongest terms possible not to lose his focus on Asia and to articulate a strong economic and political strategy to build on the gains of these trips and his fence mending with China.
“It’s great that the prime minister finally went to China. It is a successful visit . . . This means we’ve turned a corner and we can intensify our relationship further with the Chinese, which means ultimately we’ll have a seat at the table and more influence with on Chinese government than we’ve had in the last little while,” said Robert Wright, who recently retired after a four-year stint as Canada’s ambassador to China.
“Many countries and companies have made a long-term strategic commitment to China. We have not done the same.”
Wright watched from the sidelines as French President Nicolas Sarkozy passed through at least three times and Australian cabinet ministers held annual meetings with their Chinese counterparts.
“The only G8 leader who hadn’t gone to China over the last few years was the Canadian prime minister. I’m pleased that that’s now been corrected.”
Wenran Jiang, the University of Alberta Sino-Canadian relations expert, said the gains Harper made in China were less than what had been achieved by the previous Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.
In 2006, Harper rolled back Liberal gains such as a human rights dialogue and a strategic partnership, which was inked by Martin in 2005. On this trip, Harper claimed victory by announcing a strategic working group, which has a lesser stature.
But Jiang said Chretien established the working group in 2003 before Martin took it a step further two years later.
Jiang urged Harper to revive a cabinet-level China strategy document that was created by former China envoy Joseph Caron on the Liberal watch. The prime minister mothballed the document in 2006.
“Are we going to pick that up with a non-partisan approach?” asked Jiang.
“They never should have injected partisan politics into foreign policy, but they did. And now they are going back to many of the things developed by Liberals.”
Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark told The Canadian Press that there’s “a price to be paid” for ignoring China, but that Harper’s trip may have reversed his “failure to engage” with many parts of the world.
“I hope that it now reflects a fairly major change in the attitude towards Canada’s variety of international opportunities and partners,” said Clark, who also served as Canada’s external affairs minister in the 1980s.
“As with almost everything this government does, it was very much attuned to their domestic audience, which may be a necessary factor in a minority situation. But that did not get in the way of it being an effective trip for Canada.”
Harper and Lee emerged from their talks in Seoul to promise they would redouble efforts to reach a comprehensive trade deal that has eluded the two nations for years.
Both also pledged to work on lifting the six-year import ban on Canadian beef, although Lee noted it is a “sensitive issue” in Korea.
Talks on both issues have met strong domestic lobbies: the auto sector in Canada which complains it is being deprived access to Korean markets, and Korean farmers seeking protection from importers.
Though promises were made, there were no breakthroughs for Harper in South Korea during his one-day visit, which was highlighted by his address to the national assembly — a first for a Canadian prime minister.
But the event lost some lustre when only about two-thirds of the 324-assembly members showed up for Harper’s mid-afternoon address.
While Harper clearly enjoyed his visit to Korea, the key reason for the tour was China. There, Harper took a scolding over having neglected the economic dynamo for too long, but still left with a few plums.
China dropped its ban on pork imports and granted Canada “approved destination status,” which will allow Canadian tourist operators to advertise and market in China. Hong Kong also dropped a ban on most Canadian beef.
Harper came away with a commitment from Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to turn the page on the bad start with the Harper government if the prime minister reciprocates by according China the respect the leaders believe a country of such importance deserves.
In a Shanghai speech, the prime minister stressed that human rights remain a priority, but also praised China for the progress it has made.
“We can and we will and we should disagree with China on many issues. But the Chinese leadership respects frank, even blunt exchanges as long as it’s done behind closed doors,” said Wright.
Harper made it clear he believes Canada is just “scratching the surface” on the economic benefits it can garner from China’s transformation to an economic powerhouse.