Trudeau welcomes Chinese Premier Li Keqiang warmly but cautiously

This week will mark the first visit of a Chinese leader to Canada since 2010. A lot has changed in the relationship between the two countries since then.

Li's visit to Canada is first by a Chinese leader since 2010

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, seen here with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in China earlier this month, will be the first Chinese leader to visit Canada since 2010 when he arrives later this week. (The Associated Press)

As the official plane touched down in Ottawa this afternoon, it marked the first visit of a Chinese leader to Canada since 2010. A lot has changed in the relationship between the two countries since then.

Premier Li Keqiang arrives with more economic clout, his country a real dragon. Depending on how you measure it, China now has the biggest or the second biggest economy in the world. China's GDP has almost doubled in the past six years, despite a recent slowdown.

Canada's approach to China has also evolved. In 2006, a newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada would not sell out human rights for the "almighty dollar," and he boycotted the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics over that issue. His views changed later, but the relationship was never a warm one.

PM cautious about trade talks

In contrast, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already declared that Beijing-Ottawa relations — especially economic links — must be "updated and re-energized." On both sides of the Pacific, his recent official visit to China has been described as the revival of a lapsed friendship.

While there, both leaders — Trudeau and Li — said it might even make sense to discuss a free-trade agreement. They will certainly talk trade this week.

"So seize the day and seize the moment," says Victor Zhikai Gao, a former official in China's foreign ministry.

"Why should Canada cut itself out, to remain in a state of isolation as far as engaging with Chinese capital is concerned?" he asks. Gao says China is eager to invest in Canada, and to trade more.

But it's unlikely that Canada will want to start actual negotiations anytime soon. Even Trudeau struck a cautious note at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in September.

"This is an exciting time, but it does require vigilance and attention on a broad range of issues," he said.

It's nice to be friends with a dragon, but you don't want to get burned.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, August 31, 2016. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Trudeau might have been thinking about Australia's experience. Even as that country was concluding a free-trade agreement with Beijing after 10 years of negotiations, Australian coal exporters were suddenly facing non-tariff restrictions based on new, higher purity standards imposed by China.

Canada still hasn't resolved a dispute with China over its threat to impose restrictions on Canadian canola, also based on new, higher purity standards.

Beijing buys 40 per cent of the Canadian oilseed shipped abroad, but has threatened to stop unless producers implement much more stringent cleaning guidelines. China says it's a food safety issue, but others suspect Beijing is trying to pressure producers because there's a glut of canola worldwide. This will certainly come up at talks this week.

Longtime China observers say this is a typical tactic to gain the upper hand in trade talks.

"They see it as helping create an asymmetrical power relationship where China has more power," says Charles Burton, a former adviser to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing who now teaches at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

"And we have to accept that they're not prepared to play according to the sort of fair relationship we expect. So we have to take that into account in our negotiations and try to have mechanisms that will ensure that the Canadian interest is preserved," he says.

Many countries have also been leery of record-setting increases in Chinese foreign investment, including purchases of what they consider to be "sensitive" infrastructure or technology.

Australia recently blocked an offer by Chinese investors to buy controlling interest in the country's biggest power grid, citing national security. Germany has struggled with concerns over the sale of a leading producer of industrial robotics, Kuka, to Chinese appliance giant Midea.

Then there's Canada's Bombardier. While Li's visit may well include announcements of new deals for China to purchase Bombardier's products, it turns out China was interested in buying the Montreal-based company's whole railway division last year. That might also have meant acquiring Canadian technology.

In that case, Bombardier refused the offer. But many in China feel Canada has foreign investment rules that are too restrictive, especially in the energy sector.

'Worry' over China's increasing presence in Canada

Canadians, on the other hand, are lukewarm on the prospect of greater economic connections with China.

A poll by EKOS Research for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada last month found an even number of Canadians, 46 per cent, supporting and opposing a free-trade deal with China. The same percentage "worry that China's increasing presence in Canada is a threat to the country's values and way of life." And 51 per cent say Canada should forgo doing business with Asia over human rights concerns.

Human rights may come up in the discussion between Li and Trudeau this week, but a key irritant was removed last week when China sent Kevin Garratt home to Vancouver. The Canadian had been held for two years after Beijing accused him of spying.

After numerous interventions by Canadian officials — and most recently by Trudeau himself — he was convicted on espionage charges and ordered deported. Ottawa says the charges were baseless.

One issue that Li will raise this week is China's long-standing demand that Canada agree to a system for the return of Chinese citizens it considers economic criminals, people Beijing accuses of corruption or embezzlement who have fled to Canada.

After a high level meeting in Beijing last week between Trudeau's National Secuity Advisor, Daniel Jean, and Wang Yongqing, a senior political and legal affairs official with the Communist Party of China, the two countries agreed to start discussions on an extradition treaty. Other security-related and law enforcement issues will also be discussed, with the aim of "jointly addressing global threats," according to a news release from the Prime Minister's office. 

Ottawa has been reluctant to hand them over, partly because it says China hasn't provided enough evidence of their guilt and partly because of Beijing's frequent use of the death penalty for economic crimes.

Even with the new relationship, there are issues that cannot be resolved in a few friendly weeks.


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.