Harper in China: rules of the game - Macleans.ca

Harper in China: rules of the game

Paul Wells on why we should file the trade agreement between Canada and China under “might help; can’t hurt”

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Photograph by Paul Wells

It’s an odd visit. Today the middle of Stephen Harper’s day was taken up with what our itineraries described as a “round-table meeting.” The Prime Minister’s Office sent us a list of the Canadians who attended: Pierre Beaudoin from Bombardier, Roy Cook from the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, Duncan Dee from Air Canada, Lowell Jackson from CAPP, Amit Chakma from UWO, Lorraine Mitchelmore from Shell, Patrick Lamarre from Lavalin.

It actually took a while for me to ask the pool reporter (many of the events on these trips are covered only by a single reporter and camera, who share with everyone else) whether anybody Chinese was on hand. Nope. Just the Canadians. Chattin’ about the federal budget in Beijing. More of a semi-circle meeting, really.

The news came later: “PM Announces Agreement That Will Facilitate Investment Flows Between Canada and China.” This is the semi-mythical FIPA, for Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, signed by Trade Minister Ed Fast and his Chinese counterpart, Chen Deming, while Harper and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao looked on.

Successive governments have been trying to get one of these for 18 years. Harper has nearly got this one, subject to legal review on each side, review and ratification. It’s supposed to submit foreign-investment decisions on either side to non-arbitrary rules and a formal appeal process. The communiqué was laudably vague about the extent to which that’s actually been achieved: it speaks of a “more stable” environment for investment, “greater” protection and “greater” confidence. It’s hard to get more excited than that, because Chinese local authorities have a nasty habit of expropriating things randomly and it’s not clear that a new piece of paper will be better at bringing them to heel than any previous paper was. The fair answer is that it’s probably better than not having an extra piece of paper. One official I spoke with said the prospect of a bilateral dispute-resolution panel means that at least the national Chinese government will be made aware, each time local authorities flout the rules of fair trade. File this one — tentatively, until we see the fine print — under “might help; can’t hurt.”

Much of the other paper released at the Great Hall of the People after the Wen bilat was still less groundbreaking. A new Memorandum of Understanding on Energy Cooperation “is a continuation of the MOU signed in 2001 and renewed in 2006.” An agreement on “Market Access for Canadian Beef and Tallow for Industrial Use” “represents the next step of the 2010 Cooperative Agreement,” and returns bilateral beef-bits trade to the pre-Mad Cow status quo ante “for the first time in almost a decade.”

A “Call for Science and Technology Proposals” is part of a program “established in 2005.” New changes to the “Canada-China Scholars’ Exchange Program” opens to undergrads and mid-career professionals a program that has been available to faculty and grad students since Pierre Trudeau’s first term in office.

At an evening news conference, Harper pointed to FIPA, the trade agreement, as one of two “major milestones” he has accomplished that none of his predecessors could. The other is Approved Destination Status for Canada, which permits Canada to market itself as a destination to Chinese tour groups in China. It’s true that Canada obtained this status, in 2009, under Harper. It’s true that it led to an increase in Chinese tourism, “approximately 25% more Chinese visitors,” the PMO says. It’s also true that 141 countries benefit from Approved Destination Status, making Canada one of the last countries on Earth to get it.

So the day’s theme would seem to be “paper that can’t hurt and may help.” This includes the newspapers. The semi-official China Daily had a lead editorial on Canada, saying that “both sides” — i.e., not just Canada — feel an “increasing need to bring bilateral ties to a new level.”

Perhaps more significant is this op-ed from Joe Nocera, a Democrat-leaning New York Times columnist who here demonstrates he gets the message the PMO has done everything to send: overtures to China are Canada’s punishment for US fecklessness as a client for our oil. The substance of the trip may matter less than its timing. Which would be handy, because the substance is a bit slim.

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