TV reporters travelling with Stephen Harper to China this week are desperate for some colour to go with all the talk of pipelines. The Prime Minister’s Office, more adept at serving up pageantry than it used to be, has served up a couple of old standbys.
Mark Rowswell, a television entertainer who has been famous in China as “Dashan” for longer than Harper has been in politics, was designated as Canada’s goodwill ambassador to China. And in this trip’s worst-kept secret, a Saturday visit to the Chongqing Zoo is designed to ensure the Harpers will be followed home by some cuddly panda bears for the Calgary Zoo.
The message sent by those announcements is one of continuity and sure value. The message sent by just about everything else in today’s China is one of constant turmoil. Harper’s predecessors used to arrive in Beijing as rare emissaries from the outside world. These days, the outside world sends visitors at such a heady tempo that Harper was in some danger of being run over on arrival by the next carpetbagging potentate if he didn’t clear off the VIP runway lickety-split.
Germany’s Angela Merkel was in Beijing only last week. It was her fifth visit. India’s foreign minister is in town at the same time Harper is. Britain’s finance minister and the U.S. treasury secretary visited in January.
In a world hungry for growth and certainty in the aftermath of the 2008 market tumble, China is a dream customer, a compulsive shopper with a bottomless wallet. The country is going through the most massive and rapid urbanization in human history, its citizens moving from villages to high-rises by the tens of millions. Thirty years ago it was a net energy exporter. Now it is the world’s second-hungriest energy customer after the United States, which it could surpass in a decade. China’s transformation creates “a seemingly endless demand for concrete, steel and copper wiring,” Daniel Yergin writes in his book The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. What China needs most of all, Yergin writes, is energy. “It all adds up: more coal, more oil, more natural gas, more nuclear power, more renewables.”
But above all, more oil. China’s 2010 auto sales were up 32 per cent over the previous year, to 18 million cars and trucks. (The figure for 1990 was 43,000.) Electric cars are a negligible fraction of that market. The rest need gasoline to move. What makes China an even more alluring market is that the traditional markets for energy are importing less than they used to.
“It is a reality that North America and Europe are going to increasingly become less dependent on Middle Eastern oil,” says Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The demand for Middle Eastern oil is shifting to Asia: China, India, Korea, Japan. It will have profound implications on international relations and who’s up, who’s down.”
Most analysts assume the bulk of Canadian petroleum exports will likely keep going south to the U.S. Indeed, despite the fuss Harper has made about U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to delay approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project, the U.S. will remain the destination for most of Canada’s energy exports.
But if Canada wants to be in the game of maximizing petroleum exports—a big “if,” but that’s definitely the game Harper wants to be in—then medium-term U.S. trends aren’t encouraging. Total U.S. oil imports in 2011 were down five per cent over the previous year, continuing a longer-term trend. The same technological advances that have allowed the exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands are permitting inland and offshore oil development no U.S. oil company could have contemplated a decade ago. And suddenly Canada isn’t the Americans’ only oil-rich neighbour. Deep-water wells off Brazil are on track to produce five million barrels a day by 2020. Obama was in Brazil a year ago to pronounce himself an eager customer.
Unlike the Americans, the Chinese are in no position to be picky about their oil sources. They’ll take the stuff wherever they can get it. This is a source of headaches for Harper, as well as opportunity. The Conservatives have taken to describing Canada’s petroleum exports as “ethical oil,” but the Chinese are fabulously unfussed by such considerations, which helps explain how Iran became their third-largest provider of oil.
As Western countries divest in Iran to protest, and seek to curtail, the ruling regime’s nuclear ambitions, Chinese companies have moved into the vacuum. Trade between the two countries was up 55 per cent last year, to $45 billion. Entreaties to President Hu Jintao to reduce that trade have come to naught. Reducing China-Iran trade was the goal of U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s trip to Beijing last month. He went home empty-handed.
Obama has urged Middle Eastern oil exporters to sell more oil to China in place of Iranian oil, and on odd-numbered days he may even wish Canada would do the same. But that’s not how oil works. China will buy some of ours and some of theirs. In the meantime, it will, it seems, keep opposing Western attempts to use sanctions to bring the oppressive regime in Syria to heel.
Harper vowed to raise with his hosts his concern over the Chinese-Russian veto of United Nations sanctions against Syria. But meanwhile, the Chinese regime’s treatment of its own citizens continues to dismay. Last month, Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, said he’s seen a “significant crackdown on dissension,” fuelled in part by fear on the part of China’s rulers that the pro-democratic “Arab Spring” would prove contagious.
At a media briefing on the eve of Harper’s visit, reporters invited a Canadian official to comment on Locke’s remarks. “We’re focusing here on the Prime Minister’s visit to China,” the official replied. “We want to make sure it’s a successful visit.”
If there’s one thing that 20 years of on-again, off-again Canadian engagement with China has shown a succession of Canadian leaders, it’s that no course of action will protect them from domestic criticism. If they shun China, as Harper did until 2009, they will be criticized for putting ideology ahead of opportunity. Embrace China and they will be called opportunists.
Harper has gamely tried to argue Jean Chrétien was a bigger opportunist. “We reject the approach of the previous government, which said it’s impossible to have commercial relations with China at the same time as we raise difficult questions of democracy and rights,” he told La Presse last week. “We do both.”
This is revisionist. In a speech to Shanghai law students in 2001, Chrétien said Canadians “are concerned when they hear reports from China of interference in the right of free expression. Or that people are imprisoned and badly treated for observing their spiritual beliefs. These reports transgress our most deeply held convictions.”
From the beginning, though, Chrétien decided not to let transgressions get in the way of a deal. After a lag, Harper has arrived at the same conclusion. Both decided to go where the growth is, and it’s really hard to do that without going to China.