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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.