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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Friendlier China shows willingness to embrace Canada's new tone

June 25, 2009

‘What is encouraging is that the Chinese themselves took the initiative'


Campbell Clark

The Globe and Mail,

Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009


China's Foreign Minister signalled that his country is ready to turn the page on a rocky relationship with the Conservative government, opening the door for Stephen Harper to rebuild ties in a fall visit.


Yang Jiechi bustled out of an Ottawa speech flashing a thumbs-up to reporters and declaring that China wants to see “high-level” visits in both directions. That came after he told business leaders that Beijing wants to move on from recent difficulties in relations with Canada.


“Despite some difficulties, I must say that in recent years there has also been progress made in our relationships. It is heartening to note that with joint efforts, China and Canada's relationship is improving and growing,” he said in his address to the Canada China Business Council.


Mr. Yang's visit symbolized Beijing's willingness to embrace Canadian efforts to repair strained ties – marked this spring by an accelerating pace of official visits by Trade Minister Stockwell Day, once a vocal China critic, and Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.


“What is encouraging is that the Chinese themselves took the initiative. I think there was some concern even some months ago that they would not do that,” said former prime minister and foreign minister Joe Clark, a head-table guest for the speech.


“Depending on the Canadian follow-up, this could turn out to be a significant development.”


The follow-up widely expected now is Mr. Harper's first trip to China, being planned for mid-November, when the Prime Minister is already scheduled to travel to Singapore for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.


Mr. Harper's press secretary, Dimitri Soudas, repeated Tuesday that the Prime Minister wants to go, but he would not confirm any date. Mr. Yang, however, spoke of the importance of such visits and China watchers called it the obvious next step.


“The table is set,” affirmed Peter Harder, the president of the business council and a former deputy minister of foreign affairs.


Mr. Yang met with Mr. Harper Tuesday and had a lengthy meeting with Mr. Cannon Monday night. He also met Tuesday with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who announced he will visit China in September.


Canada-China relations soured in Mr. Harper's first two years in office, when the Prime Minister's vocal criticism of China's human-rights record annoyed Beijing, and his hosting of the Dalai Lama in his office – where a Tibetan flag was on display – was viewed by Chinese officials as a Canadian flirtation with separatists.


In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Yang laid down some warning markers, noting that China cannot accept notions of Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, and asserting that the Dalai Lama refuses to truly abandon a goal of Tibetan separatism.


“To advance China and Canada relations, we should respect and accommodate each other's concerns, and properly handle sensitive issues,” he said.


However, most of Mr. Yang's message was a paean to long-running and positive ties between the Canada and China, with only light references to the recent chill.


He spoke of Canada's first wheat sales to China in the 1960s, its early move to establish diplomatic ties in 1970 and the growth of annual trade from $160-million in 1970 to $34.5-billion last year.


And he pointed to a brief meeting between Mr. Harper and Chinese President Hu Jintao last July, on the sideline of the Group of Eight leaders summit in Japan, as the milestone that helped turn the tide in Canada-China relations.


Mr. Harper's Conservatives came to office with a large contingent of MPs holding a hawkish view of China, critical of Beijing's religious repression and sympathetic to Taiwanese nationalists. Many, like Mr. Day, criticized the former Liberal government for soft-pedaling rights issues to advance trade.


But ministers like David Emerson and then Mr. Cannon took over as foreign affairs minister, and Mr. Day, who speaks with awe of China's booming economy since his April visit, is something of a convert.


And China's rapid rise, not just as an economic power but a political one – some now refer to the country as half of the G2 (meaning the two-nation club of China and America) – has persuaded Mr. Harper's government that improving relations is imperative.


“On any issue, you have to talk about it with China,” one Conservative official said.


China, too, has an interest in Canadian commercial ties, not only as an export market, but as a natural resources source.

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