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Canadian diplomatic trips to China accomplished little, U.S. ambassador says

August 26, 2011


BEIJING— From Thursday's Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 9:08AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 8:18PM EDT


Canada’s early efforts to re-engage with China amid a long diplomatic chill served only to “placate” Canadian business leaders while accomplishing little else of note, according to a U.S. diplomatic note newly made public by WikiLeaks.

A pair of overlapping trips to Beijing in January 2007 by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and then international trade minister David Emerson were “described by the press and government in positive terms,” reads a cable written in February of that year and signed by the then United States ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins. But Mr. Wilkins’s own assessment of the ministerial visits was less enthusiastic. “Excluding an agreement to co-operate on scientific research, the trips resulted in no apparent deliverables for Canada. However, they did serve to placate Canadian business leaders who had been concerned that the Canadian Government was not paying enough attention to China.”

And even the science deal is portrayed as being of limited value. Martin Charron, deputy director for commercial relations, Asia and Oceania, in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, is quoted in the cable as dismissing the $5.25-million science and technology co-operation agreement that Mr. Emerson signed with his Chinese counterpart during the trip. “Charron indicated however, that there was little substance to the agreement and it was unclear exactly what, if anything, it would lead to,” the cable reads.

The cable – entitled “Canadian government increasingly focused on China” – also quotes Colleen Barnes, a senior Finance Department official, as saying that although Mr. Flaherty’s visit resulted in good exchanges, she wasn’t sure whether “market access concerns” that Mr. Flaherty had raised while in Beijing “would get anywhere.”

Since winning re-election earlier this year, the Harper government has re-invested in its relationship with China, rapidly dispatching new Foreign Minister John Baird to Beijing and making preparations for Mr. Harper himself to make another trip there this fall.

Several cables containing Mr. Wilkins’ analysis of the Canada-China relationship were among more than 5,000 documents, many of them related to China and Taiwan, that were released Wednesday by Wikileaks, the controversial website that has gained worldwide fame and notoriety by exposing secret U.S. government communications. The cables issued by the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa provide a lens into how an interested third-party views Canada’s shifting policy toward China under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The earlier cables offer a hint that the strategy, at least in its early days, may not have been yielding fruit. They “really indicate how one-sided the Canada-China relationship has become over the last 20 years,” said Charles Burton, a China expert at Brock University and a former China-based Canadian diplomat.

“China has made so many inroads into Canada that serve the interests of the Communist Party’s regime very well.... But Canada gets no progress on substance such as fairer access to the Chinese market, human-rights concerns or concerns about Chinese espionage in Canada in return.”

Cables written in the wake of Mr. Harper’s initial February, 2006, election win note Canada’s toughening line toward China, particularly Mr. Harper’s willingness to push Beijing over human rights, Tibet, and the case of Uyghur-Canadian Huseyin Celil, who is serving life imprisonment in China on thin terrorism charges – as well as Mr. Harper’s decision to skip the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. “China has been a special focus of PM Harper’s defense of human rights abroad,” reads an Aug. 22, 2008, cable, which is again signed by Mr. Wilkins.

The cable notes that Beijing had “reacted angrily” to Canada’s new policies, particularly a 2006 decision by parliament to award honorary Canadian citizenship to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Mr. Harper also formally received the Dalai Lama in office a year later, becoming the first Prime Minister to do so.

None of the cables released Thursday are new enough (the freshest is dated early 2010) to contain evaluations of the success or failure of the Harper government’s more recent efforts to try and repair its relationship with China. Mr. Harper and his ministers have made a parade of visits to Beijing since a policy about-face in 2009, drawing a return trip from President Hu Jintao in 2010. At the same time, members of the Conservative government have avoided the Dalai Lama during his most recent trips to Canada, and ministers travelling to China have strenuously avoided mentioning Mr. Celil’s case in public.

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