beijing – lately—A visiting Canadian prime minister was talking about the importance of strengthening relations with China across a wide range of fields, from trade and investment to technology and culture.
The prime minister was even a Liberal named Trudeau, although in this case it was not Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who first reached out to China in the early 1970s to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic, but his son Justin. Justin Trudeau became Canada’s leader when he ended a decade of Conservative rule by winning the October 2015 federal election. He took an eight-day trip to China from the end of August to September 6.
“I believe my official visit to China has placed the Canada-China relationship on a renewed and stable track that will foster greater economic and social benefits for both our peoples,” Trudeau said before returning home. “I would like to thank my Chinese hosts for their warm welcome, for sharing their views on all issues in a respectful and productive way, and for facilitating the exciting new bilateral initiatives.”
His friendly comments, which were more than reciprocated in Chinese reports on the visit, contrasted with the cool and often chilly tone in bilateral relations while Stephen Harper, a Conservative, was Canada’s prime minister from 2006 to 2015.
The Chongqing Morning Post gushed in a blog post: “He has curly hair, deep eyes, a handsome face and tight muscles. Today we introduce everyone to a Hollywood star—oops, that’s not right—the prime minister of Canada!”
Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, said Trudeau’s impact on Sino-Canadian relations “is a miracle to me…You can see and feel the spark, energy and confidence of Canada. We believe he is the future of Canada.”
Tight muscles go only so far, however. What was the substance of the visit? For Canada, which is wrestling with a sluggish domestic economy, the major accomplishment was the signing of 56 trade deals worth more than $1.2 billion. China is Canada’s second largest trading partner after the United States, and China enjoys a massive trade surplus of more than $35 billion.
Canada also secured an indefinite delay in Beijing’s September 1 deadline to enforce rules that could have restricted imports of Canadian canola oil, which are worth almost $4 billion a year. And Alibaba announced the launch of a Canadian “pavilion” on its Tmall retail platform that will connect Canadian companies to Chinese consumers.
In turn, Canada announced its intention to join the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Chinese-led initiative meant to complement major global financial institutions such as the World Bank. Like them, the bank will focus on providing capital for major infrastructure projects in fields such as transportation, energy generation and telecommunications.
The new bank has been a source of discord between China and the United States, with Washington lobbying its allies not to participate. However, Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who was traveling with Trudeau, told a news conference that “Canada’s membership will generate commercial opportunities for Canadian companies, create good jobs and contribute to global economic growth… Participation in the bank is clearly in Canada’s best interests.”
AIIB President Jin Liqun, who joined Morneau at the news conference, called the Canadian announcement a vote of confidence.
“This decision also indicates that Canada, like many new applicants, affirms the way this new bank is being run in the first eight months of operation and trusts in the bank’s unswerving commitment in the years to come,” he said.
In another nod toward Chinese interests, Trudeau indicated a willingness to revisit the issue of restrictions on investment in Canada by Chinese state-owned enterprises, which were put in place by the Harper government.
“We need to draw in global investment as a way of being able to properly develop our resources in ways that are going to create a lot of jobs in Canada,” Trudeau asserted.