John Baird talks trade, human rights in China

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is in China to mend strained ties and promote trade, even as he broaches the sensitive issue of human rights.
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird is greeted by his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, during his visit to Beijing on Monday. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is in China to mend strained ties and promote trade, even as he broaches the sensitive issue of human rights.

Baird met with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jeichi, in Beijing on Monday and discussed trade, investment, and human rights.

Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing was among the issues discussed.

Changxing is being held in Port Coquitlam and faces deportation back to China as soon as July 22. He faces allegations he masterminded a vast smuggling ring that cheated the government out of billions of dollars in duties on imported goods and bribed officials to look the other way.

Canada had concerns Changxing would be executed, while China has said he will not be killed.

"They've made undertakings to us which the judiciary will weigh, as far as the risk assessment," Baird said, noting he sees similarities between Canadians and the Chinese on this issue.

"Both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white-collar fraudsters. They take this issue very seriously," Baird said.

Baird said Monday the Canadian legal system will deal with the case and that he has no role in the matter.

"We have to let the Canadian justice system fairly and independently take its course. We can't, obviously, change laws retroactively."

Trade numbers up

The minister, who is in the country for the first time in his new role, says relations with China continue to improve and he hopes for increased investment and trade in the future.

"China is our second-largest trading partner," he said. "We have significant Chinese investment in Canada, $14 billion versus $4 billion of Canadian investment in China."

His visit, he said, will "underline the importance that I and the government place in the relationship."

Bilateral trade is up 57 per cent over the last five years, and recent trade figures show the value of B.C. softwood lumber exported to China has surpassed the U.S. for the first time, sending powerful signals about the importance of the Asia-Pacific markets for this country's economy and job prospects.

On top of that, Beijing issues as many as 2,000 visas a day for Chinese tourists planning to visit Canada.

'Chinese investment is of net benefit'

Baird said the ministers discussed Chinese investment in Canada's natural resource sector.

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"We welcome more of that," he said. "Our government will always be prepared to stand up for the national interest when things are not of net benefit to Canada but, thus far, the assessments made have been that the Chinese investment is of net benefit to Canada."

The Conservative government has been criticized for letting ties with China slip some years ago. Prime Minister Stephen Harper missed the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in China and did not visit the country at all until his third year in office.

But Baird says the relationship has changed since Harper's visit two years ago.

Meanwhile, Canada's opposition is criticizing Baird's trip.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the government's strategy on China is too focused on trade and economic matters instead of human rights. 

Liberal MP John McCallum told CBC-TV's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon on Monday that the Conservatives' changed approach is welcome, but "the Chinese have long memories, and I don't think they will forgive the Harper government quickly for this bad behaviour over the first three to four years."

Baird's parliamentary secretary said Canada's relationship with China is moving along well, disputing opposition MPs' criticism that the Conservative government has had to play catch-up in its relationship with China.

"Our trading relationship with China has grown and grown," Deepak Obhrai said.

"Our relationship with China is moving along very, very fine."

On Tuesday, Baird travels to Shanghai to speak to Chinese and Canadian business leaders. He leaves on Thursday for Bali, Indonesia, and a meeting of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) ministers.

With files from The Canadian Press