Harper lands in China looking for business

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip to China comes amid a renewed focus on Canada's natural resource exports, including oil and gas, forest products, minerals and agricultural products.

Agriculture delegation already at work before Harper's arrival

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and his wife Laureen wave as they arrive at Capital International Airport in Beijing Tuesday.

Centuries ago, emperors flocked to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing to pray for a good harvest.

And that's where Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make one of his first stops on a four-day trip through China, continuing a course he set two years ago to harvest more of the country's wealth for Canada.

The trip comes amid a renewed focus on Canada's ability to satiate China's growing thirst for oil — a thirst that's reflected itself in billions of dollars worth of Chinese investment in Canada's oilfields since 2009.

One route is the Northern Gateway pipeline, which could deliver oil from Alberta to ports in B.C. and then onwards to China.

But hearings into the pipeline have only just begun.

So though oil and gas executives form part of the 40-strong business contingent along for Harper's trip, it is other sectors ready now for greater Chinese involvement that will be daily focus of Harper's tour.

Harper, who arrived in Beijing early Tuesday, is making his second visit to China since 2009. Since then, the two countries have grown closer thanks to a series of high-level meetings.

Harper is hoping to push forward the relationship with a series of events highlighting people as much as product, as well as signing new deals.

Among the deals in the works is the foreign investment protection agreement, which has been under negotiation with China for almost 20 years.

Business groups would like to see an agreement finally reached, as it would give both sides more confidence to expand trade.

Lending heft to the premium the Conservatives place on expanding trade with China is the size of the delegation on the trip: five cabinet ministers, six Tory MPs and 40 business and community leaders, including high level executives from the energy and agriculture sectors.

The delegation led by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz began its trade mission in advance of Harper's arrival. China is Canada's largest export market for agricultural products.

On Monday, grain industry representatives met with Ye Shixiang from the Guangxi Beibu Gulf Port, which now handles some $400 million of Canadian agriculture products annually. They also toured a canola crushing plant that processes 600,000 metric tonnes of canola a year.

On Tuesday in Chengdu, they met with the Chinese company Tongwei, which purchases canola meal for aquaculture feed and could potentially buy up to 1 million tonnes of canola meal within five years, according to a press release from the Grain Growers of Canada. During Tuesday's question period in the House of Commons, Ritz's parliamentary secretary Pierre Lemieux said that Tongwei intends to increase its purchase of Canadian canola by up to $240 million per year by 2015. 

Long-term China strategy

Harper's stops in Beijing include a tourism event and a tour of a building design centre, as well as a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Who Harper is meeting with during the trip also gives a glimpse into government's emerging desire to form a long-term China strategy; the prime minister is not just sitting down with current Chinese political leaders but also some up-and-comers likely to one day rule the country.

But inasmuch as the tour is a booster event for China-Canada relations, increasing tensions in Syria could colour the mood.

Harper is expected to raise China's decision to veto a UN resolution that would have supported a plan to see Syrian President Bashar Assad give up power.

NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere said Harper should use the opportunity to try to gain a better first-hand understanding of China's position on Syria.

"Understanding the reason is not accepting the veto. But I think it's a step in the right direction," she said.

She urged Harper to reiterate Canada's support for the UN resolution and for past efforts by the Arab League.

The prime minister will be walking a similar political tightrope when it comes to raising the issue of human rights with the Chinese government.

Ambassador's message

China's ambassador to Canada sent a thinly-veiled message prior to the trip, suggesting that Canada needs to go easy on the criticisms.

"Canada and China are different in terms of history, culture, social system and stage of development," Zhang Junsai said in a letter to The Canadian Press.

"Instead of being barriers, these differences should be drivers for deeper understanding."

A recent poll by the Asia-Pacific foundation suggested people with business links in Asia say promoting economic ties is the most effective way to improve human rights in the region.

Some aboriginal groups say it's Canada's human rights record that ought to be up for discussion.

The Yinka Dene Alliance, a group of five First Nations that represent several thousand people in north-central B.C., has sent open letters to Chinese President Hu Jintao and to the Chinese media.

The letter to Hu details a long list of issues from the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women to natives being mistreated by police to the outsized number of First Nations peoples in prison. It also says the Harper government is promoting resource development without aboriginal support.

Goodwill ambassador

Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning the the Prime Minister's Office sent out an announcement that an immensely popular Canadian entertainer has been named as a goodwill ambassador to the country.

Mark Rowswell, known in China as Dashan, is a TV host who shot to stardom thanks in part to his mastery of Chinese comedy.

Rowswell has long been a public Canadian face in China and was an official representative of Canadian delegations at the 2008 Olympics and the World Expo.

with files from CBC News