Thursday, December 10, 2009
Booming business despite not-so-sweet words
WEEKS after Barack Obama was praised for being the first American president to visit China during his first year in office, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who assumed office in January 2006, was upbraided for not going to Beijing before now.
Premier Wen Jiabao pointed out that it was almost five years since the last meeting between heads of government of the two countries, and approvingly cited media comments that the Canadian prime minister's visit "should have taken place earlier".
The Canadian leader responded by saying: "I agree with you, Premier, that five years is a long time. It's also been almost five years since we had yourself or President Hu in our country."
President Hu Jintao visited Canada in 2005, while Premier Wen has not been there since December 2003.
The public reprimand by Premier Wen was highly unusual, as was the rejoinder by Prime Minister Harper.
They go to show that, while the Harper visit was billed as an ice-breaking trip, problems remain just below the surface and Chinese resentment of recent Canadian actions is deeply felt.
These include a meeting between Harper and the Dalai Lama in 2007, and the granting by the Canadian parliament of "honorary citizenship" to the Tibetan leader.
Moreover, in 2006, the year he became prime minister, Harper declared he would not "sell out" on human rights in Canada's relationship with China.
He further angered China last year when he declined to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, although Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson was present.
Thus, it is not surprising that Wen told his Canadian counterpart that "China-Canada relations experienced twists and turns in recent years, which was not in the interest of both sides".
However, despite the political problems, Canada-China trade has grown impressively, with China now being Canada's second-largest trading partner, after the United States.
A joint statement issued after separate meetings among the Canadian leader, Hu and Wen adopted a balanced tone, asserting that both sides reaffirmed "the fundamental principle of respecting each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity, core interests and major concerns".
As in the China-US joint statement, the China-Canada joint statement declared in virtually identical wording that both countries recognised that "each country and its people have the right to choose their own path, and that all countries should respect each other's choice of development model".
Such a statement is used by China to justify not only the Communist Party's monopoly on power but also differences on human rights.
While Chinese officials were relatively restrained, at least in public, there was a hint of triumphalism in the official press, which strongly implied that Canada had seen the error of its ways and was backing down on human rights.
"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," a China Daily commentary declared.
"Now, though a bit delayed, the Harper government has ultimately decided to throw away the 'cordage' and get on the express bound for China."
"Canada," the commentary went on, "needs China's cooperation to tackle its domestic economic slowdown and rising unemployment.... Experience tells us that if Canada respects China over issues concerning China's core interests, bilateral ties could realise sound development."
As if to underline the benefits of improved relations, China announced that Canada had been given "Approved Destination Status", which will make it easier for Chinese tourists to visit Canada. This is a status Canada had been seeking and which has been accorded to most Western countries.
Relations between Canada and China were established in 1970, and in the joint statement both sides "agreed to use the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations as the opportunity to increase interaction between all sectors of society".
It is customary in such joint statements, such as the one signed by Presidents Obama and Hu as well as between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to announce that the visitor had invited the leader of the other country to visit and that the invitation had been accepted with pleasure.
Surprisingly, there was no such announcement in the China-Canada joint statement, even though it said that both sides agreed on the importance of frequent exchanges, "including at leaders' level".
Perhaps there is no agreement yet as to who should visit whom in 2010. The situation is clearly different from that in 1998, when Premier Zhu Rongji declared: "Canada is our best friend."
frank.ching New Straits Times