CHONGQING, China — A beaming Stephen Harper petting a panda may be the signature photo of the prime minister’s four-day trip to China and also the signature symbol.
Instead of applying a harsh hand to the Sino-Canadian relationship, Harper has learned to apply a gentler touch, experts say, making his second trip to the country a success for both sides.
There’s been a complete rehabilitation of the political relationship, which can be seen even in the language used by both the Chinese and the Canadian side throughout the trip, suggested Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
Both are now comfortable with the “strategic partnership” label, Houlden said, and the fact the Chinese made a point of acknowledging Harper’s majority government is a plus as the country highly values stability.
“From the Chinese the messaging – from (Chinese media) to pandas – has been consistently positive,” said Houlden in an e-mail.
Those in the room during Harper’s bilateral meetings with Chinese leaders during the trip say the atmosphere was completely different than the prime minister’s first visit in 2009.
It took him three years into his mandate to travel to China.
Chinese leaders were already irritated with Harper for earlier conferring honourary Canadian citizenship to the Dalai Lama.
When he finally reached Beijing in 2009, he was chided by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for having taking too long to visit.
This time, insiders said, talks were devoid of chilly formality. And as a signal of China’s willingness to engage Canada long-term, Harper was introduced to three up-and-coming Chinese political leaders over the course of the trip.
Notable though was China’s decision not to have Harper meet with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping who will travel to the U.S. next week to meet U.S. President Barack Obama.
Xi is slated to succeed Hu Jintao as Communist Party leader this fall, then become the nation’s president in spring 2013.
But Harper did meet with Vice Premier Li Keqiang, one of the rising stars, who is expected to succeed Wen in the upcoming transfer of power.
Li laid out a vision for Canada-China relations in a speech to a business forum, saying momentum was growing.
“There is a huge space for us to expand our economic co-operation and trade,” Li said through a translator.
The two countries need to work at “seeking common ground while shelving differences,” he said.
The remark was interpreted as a gentle dig at Canada to ease up on its remarks about human rights issues in China.
Harper insists the two must go hand in hand and Canada-China relations had reached a place where China understands that’s part of the deal when doing business with Canada.
In his keynote speech of the trip, he stressed that Canadians expect their government to uphold Canadian values in their business dealings with China and pledged to do so.
The remarks were almost identical to the keynote speech he gave during his first trip to China in 2009.
Since then, Chinese investment in Canada has boomed, now standing at $14.1 billion.
And also since then, the human rights situation in China is widely seen by observers as having deteriorated.
An 18-year-old Tibetan nun set herself on fire in western China in the latest such protest against Beijing’s handling of the vast ethnic Tibetan regions it rules, an overseas activist group said Sunday.
Beijing has also been cracking down on dissidents, handing out lengthy prison terms in what some say is a bid to thwart an Arab Spring style uprising.
When asked specifically which human rights issues he’d raised with the Chinese on this trip, Harper wouldn’t answer.
“I make it my habit when I’m in another country not to say anything publicly critical of that country,” he said.
Paul Evans, director of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research, who is finishing a book on Canada and global China, suggested Harper’s trip was a return to the 2005 Paul Martin-style of managing the country’s relationship with China.
In managing the human rights file, in forging personal relationships with leaders and setting the tone during talks, “this trip signals that he has returned to the traditional Canadian perspective,” Evans said.
“We’re in the starting blocks again after a long pause.”
It’s important to note that China itself is also different, said Howard Balloch, who was Canadian ambassador to the Asian country from 1996-2001.
“The economic structure has entirely changed,” Balloch said, pointing to the booming demand for natural resources.
Resource exports to China have quadrupled in the last five years, and Chinese firms are now major investors in Canada’s energy sector.
It’s a demand Canada is happy to feed, Harper said.
“We have abundant supplies of virtually every form of energy,” he told a business forum.
“And you know, we want to sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy. It’s that simple.”
The energy and economic focus, as well as the fact he took oil and gas CEOs along as part of his entourage suggests that Harper wants to make the energy file a showpiece of his majority mandate, said Evans.
But it needs to be a broader relationship, Evans said.
“China is not just a bilateral trading partner. It’s a country that’s now setting the terms of international politics. And Mr. Harper has handled this rather narrowly – this trip was about the commercial side,” Evans said.
And even with that, Harper missed an opportunity, said Brian Masse, the NDP’s international trade critic.
“Harper’s visit to China was a missed opportunity to promote Canadian manufacturing and level the playing field,” he said in an e-mail.
“Canada should be more than exporters of natural resources, for example, shipping our raw logs to then import a finished table from China, will not create the employment needed to sustain our quality of life.”
— with files from Canadian Press reporter Paola Loriggio