Harper’s slow boat to China sets sail

Now that relations with the U.S. are strained, Harper has warmed up to China

Harper's slow boat to China sets sail

Adrian Wyld/CP

The question before us is how Stephen Harper, of all people, came to give up on the United States and embrace Red China. It’s been a long time coming. Let’s have a look.

Here’s the Prime Minister more than four years ago, complaining to our John Geddes in a pre-Christmas 2007 interview about the deterioration in Canada’s relations with the United States:

“We continue to see what we call the thickening of the border. The building up of more regulations, new agricultural fees. And to be blunt with you, this has happened despite a good working relationship between my government and the American administration. I’m not optimistic this trend will be reversed. In fact, I’m certain this trend will not be reversed in the lifetime of the current American administration.”

That was when George W. Bush was still president. Could things get better under the next guy? “I’m far from sure.”

What then? “I’ll just tell you the cabinet has had some serious discussion about what we’ve got to do longer term to really restore the special Canadian and American relationship . . . And if we can’t restore it we’re going to have to think through carefully whether that requires some long-term rethinking over our other strategies. We keep resting on the assumption that we can defer or delay more border thickening. But that’s a strictly defensive strategy. If we can’t reverse that trend we have to come to terms with the fact that that may be a reality and how we’re going to come to deal with it as a country.”

A year later, Barack Obama was elected as Bush’s successor. The crucial time for relationship-building is before the inauguration, when cabinet secretaries and White House grandees are freshly appointed. But in Ottawa the coalition crisis and its aftermath ate December and January of 2008-09. Obama’s trip to Ottawa in February was barely more than a photo op. “We’re not going to have a lot to propose,” a Harper spokesman told me before that trip. “He’s the new guy, not us.”

Almost the only announcement out of that first meeting was a “Canada-U.S. clean energy dialogue.” Jim Prentice and Steven Chu, the lead Canadian and American cabinet ministers on the file, reported to their bosses twice. The second time, they said they would have more to say in their next update in spring 2011. There has been no next update.

So the reboot failed. Obama’s decision to delay approval for the $7-billion Keystone pipeline—until after this November’s presidential election—was the last straw. “I’m sorry, the damage has been done,” Harper told CTV last month, “and we’re going to make sure we diversify our energy exports.”

Suddenly old decisions take on new significance. In 2009, Harper appointed new ambassadors. Gary Doer, a career New Democrat with no Ottawa experience, became the ambassador to Washington. The appointment to Beijing of David Mulroney, an Ottawa lifer who spent two years running the Afghanistan operation at Foreign Affairs, drew less attention. But Doer will never have the Ottawa network Mulroney has.

By autumn of 2010 Mulroney (no relation to the former prime minister) was telling attendees at a Beijing conference that “if there ever was a golden era in Canada-China relations, it is now.”

It’s probably more accurate to say there was never a golden era and there isn’t now. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Ottawa in 2010, he and Harper announced plans to double bilateral trade in five years. But China’s trade with the rest of the world more than doubles every five years. So far Harper’s renewed attention to China since 2009 amounts to a return to previous form for Canada, after the Tories spent three years snubbing the Communists to draw contrasts with the Liberals.

How much of Canada’s energy exports can we realistically expect to divert to Asian markets? “There needs to be a little bit of perspective here,” Gordon Houlden, the director of the University of Alberta’s China Centre, told me. “The natural flow of this market is north-south. That’s not going to change.”

Still, interests on both sides of the Pacific converge. Just as Canada wants to diversify its exports, China can always use a little diversity in its import sources, Houlden said. China gets most of its petroleum from the Middle East, which is not getting more stable.

A senior government source acknowledged Canada simply can’t steer its exports like a firehose away from the U.S. and toward Asia. “Our markets are established and have been established over the past number of years.” But in determining future markets, he said, “You have to go where the growth is.”

Environmental hearings on Enbridge’s $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline to ship bitumen from Bruderheim, Alta., to ports at Kitimat, B.C., began this week. The feds fired an extraordinary warning shot on the eve of those hearings in the form of a letter bearing the signature of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who said “environmental and other radical groups” use “funding from foreign special interest groups” to kill Canadian resource development. Stopping those groups, Oliver wrote, is “an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.”

Everyone wondered what Harper’s agenda for 2012 would be. This is a big part of it. He’ll soon see that succeeding in Asia is not easier than succeeding with two U.S. presidents was.




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Harper’s slow boat to China sets sail

  1. China has no real friends. They have strategic interests. If they decide they want to diversify their trade further Canada will get a bigger piece of the pie. Its pretty calculating. However, Harper would be foolish not to prepare Canada to take advantage of whatever opportunities may come about.

    • Misquote, it is said of every country that they have no friends and is true of every country.

      • I wasn’t quoting anyone and I was talking about China specifically. However, I do agree it applies to all countries if they knew what’s good for them.

  2. “The natural flow of this market is north-south. That’s not going to change.”

    True till it isn’t and circumstances might have already changed.  

    Natural flow might be north/south at moment but that is likely to change soon. I know nothing about oil industry but I work within auto industry and follow gas issues for work. New sources of oil have recently been found and technology is close to producing gas free engines that work well, and people will buy, unlike 19th century electric technology automakers are forced to use at moment. 

    Where oil is located, where world buys oil from, has changed drastically recently and we waiting for governments to catch up with 21 st century technology.  Creative destruction brings progress while Canada dilly-dally’s as if there is no urgency, that world is not changing. Harper/Cons know perfectly well they have to encourage trade to create wealth but Government is laggard holding Canadians back. 

    Reuters ~ Jan 2012:

    “U.S. gas producers hoping exports will bring some relief from intense downward pressure on U.S. gas prices look set to be disappointed … But exporters will face tough competition for market share from conventional gas producers in Russia, Qatar and Algeria, as well as the massive new shale resources likely to be developed in Argentina, China, Poland and across North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. As the shale revolution goes global, intense gas-on-gas competition will keep prices under pressure.”  

    NY Times ~ Jan 2008: 

    Today G.M. is introducing a zero-emission Cadillac crossover vehicle concept, called the Provoq, that runs on hydrogen fuel cells and batteries rather than gasoline. The Provoq has a 300-mile range and uses a fuel-cell stack that is half the size of those in concepts that G.M. has shown previously, yet much more efficient.

  3. And the country continues to pay the price for Harper’s fixation on his war with his domestic enemies (i.e. anyone who dares oppose him).

    • What price is that?   Having the best banking industry in the world?   Lower unemployment than any other G20 nation?  Having an economy that is relatively impervious to the storm lashing Europe and the USA?  I respect your right to dislike Stephen Harper, but some facts instead of rhetoric would have been helpful.

      • If Canada’s banking system is in great shape it’s not because of the current bunch of troglodytes on the Hill and their myopic agenda for Canada. It’s because Paul Martin in 1998 kicked out the RBC Chairman hwo proposed that the system be deregulated and the social peaceable kingdom that is Canada is due to the COOPERATIVE spirit between the NDP and the Liberals who engraved Canada’s reputation on the world stage.

          This government can take no credit by inheriting $13 Bllion Suplus and blowing it to the winds of partisanship by splending 1.5B on the G20, billions on selective ridings, and planning on destroying our social services and long-term economic planning by wasting $25 Billions on “unreported crime” and another $35 Billion+ on faulty arctic aircraft by (unbidded) contractors currently under investigation for criminal overruns by Washington!

  4. I think Harper will succeed in Asia, contrary to the closing comment in the above article.   He is strong and decisive, and the Chinese political and business leaders will like that.

    • They’ve already publically reamed him out for not being there sooner.

      Snubbing their Olympics was a stupid short-sighted thing to do.

      • OE1, this is irrelevant.

        • I was replying to Happycat. 

  5. It would be my guess Harper is more interested in getting China’s cash backing for the Northern pipeline than it is to sell oil.  After all China owns a huge block of Tar Sands production.

    • Are you referring to the oil sands? Tar is a man made product not found anywhere naturally.
      Is this the John Clark of anti poverty fame?
      Canada wants to do business worldwide to increase economic prosperity in Canada. The type of economic activity that allows people in poverty to work and lift themselves into self sufficiency.
      Also, the Gateway pipeline is being financed privately by a company called Enbridge.
      The only relationship Canada’s taxpayer will have with this pipeline are decades of tax revenues to aid in the payment of Canada’s social programs.

      These are the types of information and facts not presented to Canadians by the liberal media.

  6. Harper’s a hyperactive prima donna who likes to get revenge.  His personality does not foster peacable, rational relations with ANYONE who doesn’t agree with Him.  His neanderthal Republican fundamendalist ideology is so rigid that he can’t even make “nice” with our biggest trading partner, U.S.  Not so long ago, his infantile temper tantrums made an enemy out of China, a prospectively ludicrous trading partner!  God knows who will next.  It’s ironic, but this robotic man (as called by his National Coalition colleagues) just cannot think unemotionally. Only The One Above  can help this country from dismantling and disaster from muddled, immature “strategies”!!!

  7. Harper’s short-term memory and hypocricy are by now legendary. Not so long ago he vilified and embarrassed Canada on the world stage by attacking China and as result was given the cold shoulder. Now, this thoughtless guy is trying to warm up to the Chinese and does this by making enemies our of America, supposedly our buddies.  Does Harpo think that world leaders have a short memory, like his?  He’s one of most pathetic PM’s Canada’s ever had.  How did this happen to us?

    • Andy and Pea, grow up, the both of you.  Or, at least, stop wearing your politics on your sleeve. 

  8. I can always turn to McLeans when I need a laugh! The leftest BS astonishes me. I’m not to worried about Canada US relations. When Mitt becomes president, relations will warm.

  9. Well I can’t find the article for the link, but it discussed the fact that China just lost something like $31 billion(?) in Libya, evacuating over 35,000 Chinese nationals that were working on their own projects there.

    The article stated the current Chinese top cats have taken the view better to invest in stable resource countries – Australia and Canada are their top picks.  Interesting as well, it pointed out the change in leadership in China is coming up so any personal connections will have to be initiated again with the new top cats.  Looks like Harper will be making more trips to China sooner rather than later.

    Mulroney was an excellent choice - he even speaks Mandarin – worked well for Australia’s Rudd.

    The Northern Gateway pipeline will be a tough sell but China has already committed to billions in support – kinda nice to have the Bank of China as a deep pocket.

  10. America has a rel problem of trying to dictate other countires actions

  11. Wells, I don’t thinkl you are making the right conclusion on Ambassador Doer and Mulroney. Normally, the US position is filled by a senior high profile politician. China normally has a senior career diplomat. Both fill the bill in my books. You are reporting on a lack of priority to US relations that doesn’t exist, and is unfair to Doer, who is doing a good job. 

    • That’s fair. I wasn’t really trying to say, “Doer’s a goof,” so much as I was saying we made such a fuss over the appointment of Doer — who’s well known and well liked by Ottawa reporters — that we might have missed some other stuff. Such as the appointment of Mulroney, who keeps his head down around reporters but has built an extraordinary network at DFAIT of younger bureaucrats who owe him personal loyalty. 

  12. “The question before us is how Stephen Harper, of all people, came to give up on the United States and embrace Red China”. That comment alone shows how journalists have a very narrow-minded impression of Harper and that’s it. No matter what he does, the narrow-mindedness remains and they dismiss what he does.

  13. Stephen Harper is using propaganda already. The truth is, The federal Gov’t will have to get past 40 tribes who thrive off the land, who consequently have the backing of all the other bands in BC. These are not “radicals with foreign investors”. They’re the First Nations.  Let’s get that straight right now! 

  14. Obama’s delay in approving the Keystone pipeline has everything to do with his re-election and very little to do with US – Canade relations. From every indication our relations have been improving, but I’m not surprised with the leftist anti-Harper spin in the headline, but you know Maclean’s will be the first ones complaining after our border deal goes through that we are now too close to the US (and then it will be anti-Harper again, only now for the opposite reason). Let’s face it the guy is doing a great job keeping Canada in the global game.

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