OTTAWA – China’s foreign minister played friendship ambassador on a hastily arranged visit to Canada on Tuesday, calling on the two countries to find the “vision and the courage” to expand their bilateral relations and put recent tensions behind them.
But it was Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who announced a major trip to China in September after his meeting with Yang Jiechi.
Harper has not visited China during three years in office, a major gap in his travel diary attributed to strained relations. He’s widely expected to visit following a meeting of Asia-Pacific region leaders in November, but his office could not confirm it.
“The Harper government has damaged the Canada-China relations and Michael Ignatieff sees it as priority to develop and repair the relationship,” said Liberal trade critic Scott Brison.
Yang’s two-day visit to Ottawa seemed entirely focused on making such repairs, and it received a warm reception from Harper and senior cabinet ministers.
Harper received Yang in his office – not customary practice for foreign ministers – and repeatedly told him to convey his regards to Chinese President Hu Jintao.
“Your visit here is very useful, we really appreciate it,” Harper told Yang.
Yang was equally effusive.
“I’m glad to see that trade between us has grown and our two economies are really cut out for each other,” Yang said in impeccable English.
He went much further in a major luncheon speech to the Canada-China Business Council at a downtown hotel. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Transport Minister John Baird, former prime minister Joe Clark and a host of business leaders were among the guests.
“We need courage, we need vision, and I’m here to learn from you, dear friends from Canada, and I’m also here to say to you that we cherish this relationship,” Yang told the gathering.
“We think that the vast potential that lies there needs to be tapped, as soon as possible. Let us translate as fast as possible the latent advantages of our two countries into real ones.”
Clark, foreign affairs minister under Brian Mulroney, said the fact the Chinese took the initiative to come was significant.
“I think this is an important step forward in the relation,” said Clark.
Former deputy foreign affairs minister Peter Harder said China has long appreciated the independent stance Canada has taken in 39-years of diplomatic relations.
“This is a very important signal from the leadership of China that Canada matters to them, and obviously the audience today was saying that China matters to them, too.”
Relations between Ottawa and Beijing had been seriously strained when the Conservatives came to power in 2006, following a series of statements and policy moves that rankled the Chinese.
Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama had been named an honorary Canadian citizen; Canada was actively protesting the imprisonment of Chinese-Canadian Huseyin Celil; and Harper used remarkably strong language in referring to his concern over human rights in China.
“I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values,” Harper said, after a potential meeting with Hu in November 2006 had suddenly fallen through.
“They don’t want us to sell out to the almighty dollar.”
But the lack of almighty dollars in a world wracked by a financial crisis has made the government even more sensitive to trade and investment – in which China plays a critical role.
The business community came down hard on the Conservatives for the chill in relations with China.
Harper recently dispatched Trade Minister Stockwell Day and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon to China for high-profile tours. He also reached out to Hu at last year’s meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders.
Harper told Yang he hoped they could work together on global economic issues at a coming G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. China’s support when Canada takes over the chairmanship of the G8 group and hosts the annual meeting next year.
“We also need to be very outspoken advocates against protectionism and help trade grow during times like these.”
Yang acknowledged those exchanges, and said he hoped for more – a hint perhaps at a coming Harper visit.
“To advance Canada-China relations, we should maintain the exchanges at the top and other levels and increase mutual political trust.”
Yang also addressed tensions that have sprung up in recent years between his government and the Conservatives. He called for leaders to respect the diversity of values and social systems out there on the world stage.
“We should not let these differences stand in the way of our relations, nor can they. As an old Chinese saying goes: Harmony makes us close to each other and differences make us respect each other.”
Beijing’s efforts to improve relations have apparently been going on for some time.
Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper, reported this week that China’s former top diplomat in Canada had been dispatched last fall to try to sway the Conservative government’s views.
Mei Ping said he had met with business groups, media outlets and opposition politicians to try to emphasize the importance of a positive China-Canada relationship.