"Minister foresees good relations with China" The Star
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ALFRED CHENG JIN/REUTERS

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told students Canada will stick to its ideals.

 

May 13, 2009 04:30 AM


ASIA BUREAU

BEIJING If Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon ever thought he'd be able to swan his way through a question period with Chinese college students, that notion was quickly dispelled yesterday.

"I would like to know," one young student at China's Foreign Affairs College asked pointedly, "if your visit and the visit of the trade minister (Stockwell Day) several days ago, means positive change in China-Canada relations?"

After all, the student said, the Harper government's pushing of "human rights" issues had resulted in a "downturn" in the relationship between the two countries.

"Thank you for your direct question," Cannon replied diplomatically, and went on to explain that while all relationships "have their ups and downs," this one was on the upswing headed toward "very, very good relations."

The students, most of whom are being groomed to be diplomats, seemed persuaded.

So did Liberal MP and opposition critic Bob Rae, who was seated in the audience. He said recent efforts in China by the Harper government constituted "a signal."

"I'm not going to take this opportunity to take partisan shots at Mr. Harper because I'm in another country," Rae said. "But I think the fact is: this does represent an important evolution."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared to have stumbled with the Canada-China relationship almost from the day he was elected in 2006. But now the stage seems set for a prime ministerial visit, probably before the end of the year.

Cannon told the students he had been "very pleased to hear from the Chinese leadership that they would welcome Prime Minister Harper anytime this year."

Cannon has stayed on message during his high-profile trip to China, where he met Monday with Vice-President Xi Jinping, insisting again and again that Canada was forging a "frank, friendly and forward-looking," relationship with China that would allow for discussions on human rights, but at the same time expand its trading relationship with China.

Canadian business is certain to be pleased.

"Now that the Canadian government has shown the wisdom and maturity of re-establishing friendship as the framework for discussions, both governments can roll up their respective sleeves and engage," said John Gruetzner, vice-chairman of Intercedent, a Beijing and Toronto-based business and investment advisory firm.

But he said it was now up to business to capitalize on the new, improved relationship.

"The onus shifts back to the Canadian private sector to build on this restoration," Gruetzner said.

At the college, Cannon underlined China's importance to Canada.

But he took pains to point out there would be disagreements on sensitive issues and that Canada would not be giving up any of its ideals.

He said Canada has raised its concerns with Beijing about arbitrary arrests, administrative detention a kind of jailing without trial in China and the need for continued judicial reform.