Op-Ed Contributors

Visit, though late, still welcome

By Zhang Wenzong (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-02 07:53

After nearly four years of stagnation in bilateral ties, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will finally visit China from Dec 2 to 6, his first trip to the country since taking office in 2006. It is expected that the visit, dubbed an "ice-breaking trip", will inject a warm current into bilateral relations.

Overall, Sino-Canadian ties have maintained good momentum since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1970, and especially after the end of the Cold War. The sound development was due to the maturity of the liberal government's policy toward China: In 1994, former prime minister Jean Chrtien declared delinking of the country's economic and trade policies toward China with human rights issues - the first among developed countries; in 1997, both announced the formal establishment of "a comprehensive cooperative partnership oriented toward the 21st century"; in 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao put forward four proposals on promoting bilateral ties; and in 2005, the two countries decided to forge a strategic partnership during President Hu Jintao's visit to Canada.

In the eyes of many ordinary Chinese, Canada, hailed as "the country of maple leaves", is not only famed for its beautiful natural environment, highly developed economy, advanced educational system and sound welfare policy, but has also won admiration for its peaceful diplomatic policy and favorable international image.

However, the image of Canada has been deteriorating in the eyes of many Chinese after Conservative Party leader Harper took power in 2006. Some senior government officials, parliamentarians and news media have made a big fuss about Falun Gong, the Taiwan question, the Tibet issue, "China's espionage threat" and "China's investment threat". This has stirred tremendous dissatisfaction among the Chinese government and people. Mutual political trust, hence, hit rock bottom, adversely affecting the development of bilateral ties.

The Harper government, which lays emphasis on human rights and values, closely followed the US foreign policy at the beginning of his administration. Later, however, Harper consistently raised disputes with China over the so-called human rights issue. Guided by pragmatism, former US president George W. Bush raised Sino-US ties to their best period in history. President Barack Obama, whose Democratic Party always places a priority on human rights, also played down the ideological inclination and declared that the US would like to respect the rights of people from different countries in choosing their own development path. The Harper government has undoubtedly dropped behind as substantial achievements have been notched up in Sino-US and Sino-European relations by overcoming ideological obstacles. Against a 21st century backdrop where all countries should jointly cope with the global challenges, such as financial crises, climate change, terrorism and infectious diseases, any party which stubbornly holds on the "cordage" of ideology is apt to inhibit itself.

Now, though a bit delayed, the Harper government has ultimately decided to throw away the "cordage" and get on the express bound for China.

Harper's China trip and the "rebound" of Sino-Canadian ties will benefit from the continuous expansion of bilateral trade and economic relations and social exchanges. Bilateral trade volume increased to $49.73 billion in 2008 from $19.11 billion in 2005 and China has become Canada's second-largest trading partner. Bilateral cooperation reached a new level in a variety of fields ranging from agriculture, environment protection, astronautics and remote sensing to telecommunications, meteorology, fisheries and basic sciences. There have been 14 ministerial-level exchange visits; and President Hu Jintao and Harper also held friendly talks during the 2008 Group of Eight (G8) Summit in Japan.

With the impact of the financial crisis, Canada, whose economy is highly dependent on the US, needs China's cooperation to tackle its domestic economic slowdown and rising unemployment by taking advantage of the complementarity in bilateral economic and trade relations.

As two major cross-Pacific countries, there is no structural contradiction between China and Canada. Experience tells us that if Canada respects China over issues concerning China's core interests, bilateral ties could realize sound development.

Harper's trip will definitely infuse new momentum into bilateral ties. The two sides will exchange views on the global financial crisis, climate change and new energy, and will make efforts in reaching agreements on trade and investment, enhancing bilateral negotiating mechanisms and Approved Destination Status (ADS) for Chinese visitors. As a major tourist destination, Canada's abundant tourism resources need the huge potential market of China and Sino-Canadian tourism cooperation will be another highlight of the development of the bilateral relationship.

While there are still some obstacles to the real "restart" of bilateral ties, China and Canada need to jointly address some long-term challenges, such as countering trade protectionism, changing the ideological preconceptions of some Canadians on China, and effectively preventing some separatists in Canada from engaging in activities aimed at splitting China by taking advantage of the former's liberal immigration policies.

With the approach of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Canadian relations, the Shanghai World Expo 2010 and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Harper's trip will prove to be a turning point in bilateral ties and herald a bright new future for the governments and peoples of the two countries.

The author is associated with the Institute of American Studies, affiliated to the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

(China Daily 12/02/2009 page8)