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Harper in China: Beyond the sea of troubles

Underneath all the hype something real is going on between Ottawa and Beijing, writes Paul Wells


 

The old-timers in the press gallery know how to defuse an announcement like this. We dust a toolkit from the early Chrétien days off. A Canadian prime minister shows up in a fancy Beijing ballroom with a bunch of business executives wielding Montblanc pens. A big number is being tossed around — say, “$3 billion.” But if we subtract the deals that would have happened anyway, and then subtract the deals that aren’t really deals — then we can wear that number down to some innocuous nub.

But while individual elements of Stephen Harper’s signing ceremony Thursday night in a fancy Beijing ballroom may not pan out, at some point the weight of evidence starts to suggest something real is going on. The evidence at hand comes, not just from Canadian sources, but from Chinese.

The first source of the morning was the semi-official English-language China Daily, which reserves real excitement for vice-premier Xi Jingping’s upcoming trip to the United States but which has been respectful, and a little more than that, toward Stephen Harper all week.

Later in the day came Harper’s bilateral meeting with Hu Jintao. Here, no trace of scolding for time spent posturing in the early years of Harper’s term as prime minister. Now, Hu said, “Mr. Prime Minister, you put a lot of value on Canada’s relationship with China and are strongly committed to promoting the practical cooperation between our two countries. I appreciate your efforts.” Translation: You’re out of the doghouse. Come here, ya big lug.

Then there were the umpty-dump agreements and protocols Harper and Hu announced, some of them rehashed just like yesterday’s, but notable for their sheer number. Harper and Barack Obama did not have this much stuff to announce after their first meeting in Ottawa in 2009. Taken together, the announcements suggest a resolve to strike up a working relationship.

Finally, besides the business deals, there was Harper’s speech to the assembled Chinese and Canadian CEOs. Once or twice the Prime Minister’s eagerness to make nice bordered on the clingy. “It is no accident, I think, that Canada and China came through the global recession avoiding the severity of the financial, economic and employment crises seen elsewhere,” he said.

Really? We rode out the recession because Canada and China are birds of a feather? He was really going to make this pitch, five blocks from Tiananmen Square? Stephen Harper of the National Citizens’ Coalition? Here was the manner of a rug merchant throwing his arm around the shoulder of a promising customer. “My friend! You and I are not like other men, my friend. We understand workmanship. We know good work when we see it. Here. Feel this weave.”

Still, once you got past that unfortunate bit, Harper’s speech offered a rationale for his turn toward China. “There exists a symmetry between our economic needs that you find only between a small number of our commercial partners,” he said.

“Canada has the resources, technological sophistication, and geo-strategic positioning to complement China’s economic growth strategy.”

“And China’s growth, in turn, complements our determination to diversify our export markets.”

Translated: I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Canada has things China will want to buy. China has… well, it has growth, doesn’t it?

Recall that Harper won the 2011 election, and his majority, by pitching himself as the last defender of prosperity. “Yes, Canada is doing relatively well,” he said again and again on the stump. “But a sea of troubles is lapping at our shores…. Disaster in the Pacific, chaos in the Middle East, debt problems in Europe, and all kinds of challenges — some very serious challenges — south of our border. Canada — this country — is the closest thing the world has to an island of stability and security. And we’ve got to keep it that way.”

It is not merely a prudential responsibility for Harper to keep Canada above the waters of the sea of troubles. It’s a political imperative. He cannot go back to Canadian voters as a custodian of our prosperity unless he has some prosperity. Hence the turn to China.

Perhaps like some conservatives, Harper spent his first years in office waiting for the Chinese bubble to burst. He must believe this country is on the wrong side of history. But while he waited for it to burst, the bubble got really big and made a lot of people really rich. At some point it looks like a game you don’t want to sit out.

Harper spent last spring warning against the sea of troubles. Now he looks beyond the sea and finds a land of opportunity. You bet he’s rowing toward it.


 
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