Harper's China visit ends with panda pact

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrapped up a visit to China aimed seeking new investments by officially announcing that Beijing will loan two of the country's prized giant pandas to Canadian zoos.

PM officially announces 2 giant pandas coming to Canadian zoos

A man in a suit and tie with glasses (Stephen Harper) sits next to a woman in a green outfit (his wife, Laureen) holding a giant panda. The panda and the man regard one another.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, hold a panda at the Chongqing Zoo in Chongqing, China on Saturday. Two giant pandas will call Canada home for the next 10 years. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrapped up a visit to China aimed at seeking new investments by officially announcing Saturday that Beijing will loan two of the country's prized giant pandas to Canadian zoos.

Harper visited a zoo in the southwestern city of Chongqing to say that the Chinese government is loaning the panda pair Er Shun and Ji Li to Canada for the next 10 years, Harper's press secretary Carl Vallee said.

"It is a tremendous honour for Canada to be entrusted with two of China’s national treasures," said Harper.

The pandas are expected to arrive in Canada early next year and will go to the Toronto and Calgary zoos for five years each.

Harper said the pandas will be a boon to tourism in Toronto and Calgary and a reminder of the "deep friendship and goodwill" between Canada and China.

Pandas a symbolic gesture

The prime minister noted it has been more than 20 years since giant pandas have walked on Canadian soil. Giant pandas called Canada home on three separate occasions during the 1980s, when the Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg zoos all hosted giant pandas for short-term stays.

The giant panda is unique to China and is regularly sent abroad as a sign of warm diplomatic relations or to mark breakthroughs in ties.

Harper also met with Bo Xilai, Chongqing's high-profile Communist Party secretary on Saturday, Vallee said. No details of their meeting were immediately available.

One of China's most prominent political figures, Bo has been the subject of speculation in recent days after his once-close aide, former police chief Wang Lijun, went to the U.S. consulate in a nearby city purportedly to seek asylum.

Wang's whereabouts is unknown. The uncertainty has fueled speculation over a falling-out between Wang and Bo, who has been seen as manoeuvring for a seat on the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, which will appoint new members later this year.

Agreements signed worth almost $3bn

During his second official trip to China, Harper signed more than 20 commercial deals worth almost $3 billion, and a declaration of intent on a foreign investment protection agreement (FIPA), after 18 years of negotiations.

The agreement, billed as the first comprehensive economic agreement between the two countries, will protect Canadians investing in China, as well as Chinese investors in Canada. The agreement must be legally reviewed and ratified by both governments.

The CBC's Terry Milewski, reporting from Chongqing, said Harper's official trip has generated positive results for Canadian businesses.

"He can point to a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement, which is meaningful," he said. "That is of real consequence to business, or rather it will be in the future once it is ratified. We're not there yet, we haven't reaped that harvest. But we've sown the seeds of a more secure investment climate between the two countries."

However, it is unclear what progress was made regarding human rights during the PM's meetings with Chinese officials, Milewski said.

"We have not heard him say one word to specifically fault the Chinese on human rights. He merely tells us afterwards that he raised the issue," he said.

Bilateral deals may pose a 'risk'

"He doesn't get specific about what issues he raised or in what terms, which specific cases he mentioned … he says he is raising these issues privately."

While the commercial agreements signed on Harper's three-city trip are welcome news for Canadian businesses, Harper's preference for bilateral deals come with risk, said Scott Sinclair, a senior research fellow with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"They are in a position to twist our arm and force sacrifices on us," Sinclair told CBC News.

But Lawrence Herman, a trade lawyer with Cassells Brock, said that although there is a push for larger multi-national agreements, there is nothing "sinister" about bilateral deals.

"At the end of the day, the more of these we conclude with our partners, the better," he told CBC News.

With files from The Associated Press