Harper to raise Syria crisis on China trip

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will raise the crisis in Syria on his trip to China, a top Canadian government official says, a day after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

UN resolutions on Libya may be to blame for double Syria veto

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will raise the crisis in Syria on his trip to China, a top Canadian government official says, a day after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution calling on Syria President Bashar Assad to step down.

In an interview with CBC News Sunday, Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, said Canada is pursuing "diplomatic efforts" with Russia and China in an effort to end the crisis in Syria.

"We will be talking to the Chinese and to the Russians, and explaining to them our view, as to why their veto is wrong," said Obhrai.

The prime minister, along with Baird and a delegation of MPs and other Canadian officials, are heading to China on Monday where Obhrai said several issues will be raised, "not only Syria but Iran as well."

"This is the opportunity for the prime minister to raise these issues with the Chinese leadership," he said.

During an interview with CBC News on Sunday, NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere welcomed the news, but said it wasn't enough. Recalling Canada's ambassador to Syria would send "a very strong message" to the Assad regime, she said.

"Recalling our ambassador doesn't mean that we stop the dialogue," Laverdiere added.

While Obhrai said Canada has not ruled out the move, he said withdrawing its ambassador would send "a message that Canada is upset."

"That message has already gone [out] to the Syrian government," Obhrai said.

As for diplomatic talks with Russia, Laverdiere conceded that Ottawa's expulsion of Russian diplomats in connection with spying allegations against a Canadian naval officer "may have impaired our ability to influence them."

However, the greater problem according to Laverdiere is "the fact that Canada has lost credibility on the world stage."

But Obhrai said that while Canada lost its bid for a seat on council in 2010, "to say we can't do anything because we don't have a seat at the UN Security Council is absolutely wrong,"

Motives behind double veto

Harper's trip to China will be an opportunity for Canada "to get a better reading" for why China backed Russia in vetoing the UN Security Council resolution, foreign policy expert Fen Hampson told CBC News on Sunday.

"I think everyone expected Russia to threaten to exercise a veto, but there was some surprise that China fell in behind Russia on this issue," said Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The language of the UN Security Council resolution was said to have been watered down from the original, leading its backers to believe it would pass, but Hampson said the UN resolutions on Libya are a likely explanation of why it failed.

"I think there's a very strong feeling in both Russia and China that Western powers took advantage of those resolutions — to do more than just impose a no-fly zone but to actively get rid of [Moammar] Gadhafi," Hampson said. "I think those countries think they were taken for a ride."

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if this was a factor in Russia and China's sensitivities now," said Laverdiere.

The NDP supported Canada's involvement in the NATO-led mission in Libya and a three-month extension.

But according to Laverdiere, the NDP "thought the mission had attained a goal that was provided for in the UN resolution after the first extension. And there are, indeed, a lot of people who are saying that the Libyan mission went further than what was in the UN resolution."

Improving Canada-China relations

While Harper will use this trip to raise the crisis in Syria, "it will not be a major topic of conversation," Hampson said.

The federal government has repeatedly said that the goal of Harper's trip to China is to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. According to Hampson, "that means avoiding sour notes on clear differences of opinion on what is happening in Syria."

This will be Harper's second official visit to China.

His first visit came in 2009, during which he was publicly scolded by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for waiting five years before visiting for the first time.

Until then, relations between Canada and China had been cool under Harper, as he pressed the Chinese government to improve its record on human rights and didn't attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite and rally against Assad's administration.

The UN said in December that more than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since March in the regime's crackdown on dissent. The world body said it has been unable to update its count for weeks due to recent chaos in the country.