Alberta-led trade mission to China likely won't proceed

A trade mission to China led by Alberta Economic Development and Trade is unlikely to proceed in March, according to provincial Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous.

Ongoing diplomatic, trade tensions cited as reasons behind likely cancellation

China is Alberta's second largest trading partner, but a provincially led mission to the country may not proceed because of concerns over tensions between Canada and China. (The Associated Press)

An Alberta government trade mission to China is unlikely to proceed in March as planned, says provincial Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous.

Bilous says he is not prepared to lead the trade delegation to China amid unresolved tensions between Canada and China, in the wake of the detention in Vancouver last month of a high-profile Chinese telecommunications executive.

"We're monitoring the situation, but obviously we are not going to send anyone into a situation ... where there's still outstanding concerns," Bilous told CBC.

"It's unlikely that they'll be going in March," he said about the delegation. "We're not about to take any chances if we feel that things aren't resolved or moving toward resolution."

Bilous speaks Mandarin, has led previous trade missions and had lived in two different regions of China.

Alberta Trade Minister Deron Bilous says given the current tensions between Canada and China, the trade mission in March likely won't proceed. (CBC Kim Trynacity )

Even with his experience and knowledge, he would personally avoid visiting China these days amid the uncertainty.

"To be honest, I'd probably be uncomfortable with the idea of going," he said.

About 30 Alberta companies have been planning to participate in the trade mission to Beijing led by Alberta Economic Development and Trade.

China is major trading partner

Delegates are scheduled to attend the China International Petroleum & Petrochemical Technology Equipment Exhibition.

"We know that business needs to continue," said Bilous, noting China is Alberta's second-largest trading partner after the United States.

"And the challenge with ongoing disputes like this is they can have real implications that last much longer than a situation."

Bilous said trade and business with China are important to all parties. According to information on the government of Alberta website, trade between Alberta and China has tripled since 2003, and has grown by 26.4 per cent since 2016.

Exports from Alberta to China now account for $3.29 billion annually, with products ranging from alcohol, to oil, to lumber and pulp.

Forestry market pivots to China

The frosty relationship between Canada and China comes at a crucial time, said Paul Whittaker, president and CEO of Alberta Forest Products Association.

With 24 per cent tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber going into the United States for almost two years, there has been a "pivot" to the Chinese market over the last six months, Whittaker said.

"Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what kind of impact, if any, this has," he said.

Without the Chinese market — now worth about half a billion dollars annually — Alberta forest producers would be in the same situation as the energy industry, with the United States as the only major client, he said.

Whittaker was on a trade mission to China led by the British Columbia government in December when Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested and detained.

"There was just a sense that there was a heightened tension," he said.

Meetings with government officials were abruptly cancelled and participants returned to Canada early, without critical face-to-face meetings with government officials, Whittaker said.

"As a result of the hurly-burly that week, those meetings went by the wayside," he said.

"We would hope to get those [meetings] back on the schedule again and in the months ahead."

Kovrig and Spavor have been detained in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has described as arbitrary detentions in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.

Chinese officials have said only that Kovrig and Spavor are accused of "engaging in activities endangering national security."

Another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, recently had his 15-year sentence for drug smuggling changed to a death sentence by a Chinese court after a retrial.


Kim Trynacity is a former provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton.