7 big topics for Harper's China trip (including pandas)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is visiting China this week, where he's likely to talk about Canada's natural resources, human rights and a gift of panda bears.

Oil and gas, human rights and pandas among topics

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will travel to China the second week of February. His last visit was in 2009, when he visited the Forbidden City in Beijing with his wife, Laureen. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is visiting China this week, with four cabinet ministers and seven other MPs in tow. It will be his second visit to the country after initially cool relations when he first took office in 2006.

Harper at first avoided the country over its human rights record, not attending the Beijing Olympics in 2008 after telling reporters in 2006 that he didn’t think Canadians wanted the government to sell out over the "almighty dollar." He also met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, angering the Chinese government.

In 2009, Harper paid his first visit to China, where the country’s leaders chided him for having waited so long. Chinese President Hu Jintao repaid the visit in 2010 as relations continued to warm and trade continued to increase. He's also bringing along the ministers most important to doing business with China — Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, International Trade Minister Ed Fast, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

With that in mind, here are seven topics that could come up during Harper's meetings in the country.

1. A lot of talk about oil and gas.

Harper was talking about expanding trade with China well before he announced this visit. When U.S. President Barack Obama last fall delayed a decision on whether to approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline (he later refused the application), Harper was prepared with a promise to sell Canadian crude to Asia.

Right now, 99 per cent of Canada's oil is exported to the U.S. Harper is looking to change that, particularly with Enbridge trying to get approval to run a pipeline to Canada's West Coast. That would make it easier to ship crude to Asia.

2. A focus on trade and investment 

Canada and China have been negotiating a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement since 1994 but haven’t been able to settle on a deal. The agreement would lay out rules for investing, including a dispute settlement mechanism. Now that relations have warmed, it’s possible Canadians will see one announced while Harper is in Beijing.

China is already Canada’s second-largest two-way trading partner, after the U.S. Canadians brought in $44.5 billion in goods in 2010, including electronics, machinery, toys and sporting equipment. It's an uneven relationship, with Canadians selling $13.2 billion in products to China that year. Almost all the exports were natural resources — wood pulp, mineral ores, oil and gas, and oilseeds like canola.

3. Gentle talk about human rights.

China is a country without free elections, where dissidents are imprisoned under harsh conditions and there is no free media. Harper has said China and Canada have a frank relationship, perhaps demonstrated in a speech by Baird last month where he referred to "abhorrent acts" committed in the country.

"In China, we see Roman Catholic priests, Christian clergy and their laity, worshipping outside of state-sanctioned boundaries, who are continually subject to raids, arrests, and detention. We see Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims face harassment, and physical intimidation," Baird said in his prepared remarks for a speech in London, England.

Amnesty International said last week that it’s OK to take a harder line on China because the country badly wants access to Canada’s natural resources.

4. Quiet discussion about Iran.

Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a long-time diplomat, says issues about other countries are likely to come up. China buys more Iranian oil than any other country and has influence in the Middle East and Africa, he said.

"You're dealing with a power now that has influence all over the world," Houlden said. "I would argue that our prime minister would certainly, I hope, take advantage of this opportunity to talk about those key issues — Middle East, peace process, you name it. There's almost nothing where China doesn't have an entree now because of its economic power or clout on the UN Security Council."

5. A push to sell an education in Canada.

There are 40 people from the business and academic communities travelling in the Canadian delegation, and the academics are looking to expand an already lucrative relationship. In 2010, 61,222 Chinese studied in Canada, nearly 28 per cent of international students, who pay a higher tuition than Canadian students. Chinese students were worth almost $1.9 billion to the Canadian economy that year.

Another 16,500 students in China are going to elementary or secondary schools licensed to teach a Canadian curriculum.

6. China's interest in the Arctic. 

China's ambassador to Canada has said the country wants to be an observer on the Arctic Council, an international panel run by the eight countries that rim the North Pole. A spokesman for Harper would only say the council has its own criteria for determining who gets observer status.

Houlden says China's interest in the Arctic is likely as a transportation route.

"I think it's broader than oil," he said. "Their real interest, I'm convinced, is in transport, simply shipping their goods to Europe. You would save a lot of transport time."

7. A gift of pandas.

The Chinese government has long used panda bears as gifts to promote diplomatic relations, and a number of media reports say Canada can expect to host a pair of pandas after this trip. We’ve talked about getting them before, with Harper announcing during a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2010 that they were beginning negotiations on a long-term loan of two pandas.

Asked at a briefing whether reporters could expect to see a cuddly photo op, Harper’s spokesman played coy before warning, "I wouldn’t wear your bamboo undershorts."