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Canada: Selection of envoy signals thawing ties with China

April 13, 2009

Ottawa appoints pro-business choice as trade offices open
MARK MACKINNON
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
April 11, 2009

BEIJING -- The Conservative government is getting
set to name a former top lobbyist as its next
ambassador to Beijing, sources say, a move that
would mark a sharp pro-business turn in Canada's
halting re-engagement with China.

According to Canadian sources in Beijing, the new
ambassador will be David Mulroney, now head of
the government's Afghanistan task force and a
veteran China hand. The move appears to be part
of a multipronged effort by Ottawa to reheat
relations with Beijing after years of frosty ties and lost trade opportunities.

Trade Minister Stockwell Day, long a critic of
Beijing, and particularly its restrictions on
religious freedom, arrived in China yesterday for
an eight-day, seven-city tour aimed at
invigorating a commercial relationship that has
suffered while the two sides traded barbs over
Chinese rights abuses and Canadian support for the Dalai Lama.

While in China, Mr. Day will mark the opening of
five trade offices around the country. All are in
cities where Canada already had trade missions
before Ottawa shut them down as relations cooled
after Mr. Harper took office in 2006.

Mr. Harper, whose failure to attend the opening
ceremonies of the Summer Games raised eyebrows,
is expected to visit China this year, as is Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.

And though he will be spending Easter Sunday in
the Chinese capital, the deeply devout Mr. Day
has no meetings scheduled with religious
dissidents here and his staff would not divulge
where he would attend Easter services, saying it
was part of a "private program." It's another
sign of Canada's apparent new policy of walking
softly vis-à-vis the People's Republic.

The most significant of the latest signals,
however, could be the appointment of Mr.
Mulroney, a career diplomat and bureaucrat with
years of experience in Beijing and East Asia. A
fluent Mandarin speaker, his only experience
outside government in recent years was a 1995 to
1998 stint he did as the executive director of
the Canada-China Business Council, a body that
has loudly criticized the Harper government's
China policies over the past three years. Mr.
Mulroney also spent three years as Ottawa's
consul to Shanghai and three more as head of the
Canadian Trade Office in Taiwan, Canada's de facto embassy in Taipei.

The 54-year-old has also served as assistant
deputy minister for Asia-Pacific and, until
leaving to take up the Afghan position, was the
Prime Minister's adviser on foreign policy and defence.

Though Mr. Mulroney's name has not yet been
officially presented to the Chinese government -
which has the right to reject his appointment -
his nomination is expected to happen quickly.
Canada's current ambassador in Beijing, Robert
Wright, is set to head home at the end of next
month after nearly four years in the job. Sources
in Ottawa and Beijing say Mr. Mulroney is
expected to take up his post this summer.

For the record, the Foreign Affairs Department in
Ottawa remains discreet. "The announcement of the
new ambassador will be made in due course," spokesman Daniel Barbarie said.

In addition to being ambassador to China, the
world's fastest-growing economy and Canada's
second-biggest trading partner, Mr. Mulroney
would also become Canada's ambassador to Mongolia.

John Shou, managing director of the Canada-China
Business Council's office in Beijing, said he had
heard Mr. Mulroney's name rumoured as a potential
successor to Mr. Wright and said he thought Mr.
Mulroney would do an excellent job.

"We need someone who has good knowledge of China,
and good experience in China with the business
community. Mr. Mulroney used to be posted in
China. He has a diversified - government, private
sector, NGO - background. A person like him would
very much contribute to a constructive
relationship," Mr. Shou said, adding the
relationship needed repairing after China took
insult at "certain gestures" by the Canadian government in recent years.

The CCBC has argued that because of the emphasis
the Chinese place on personal relationships -
affected by the sniping between Ottawa and
Beijing - Canadian businesses are losing out on
big contracts. For a decade now, China has also
denied Canada "approved destination status" for
Chinese travellers, a status it has given to more
than 130 other countries. As a result, Canada is
prevented from advertising itself as a tourist
destination in China and Chinese tour groups are
barred from going to Canada, at an estimated cost
of hundreds of thousands of potential Chinese tourists a year.

"What we would like to see is consistency," Mr.
Shou said. "You don't open [trade] offices one
day, then close them down, then open them up.
What kind of signal does that send?"

Such sentiments were echoed by many in the
Canadian business community in Beijing. All took
the time to praise the outgoing Mr. Wright, but
he was an appointee of the previous Liberal
government and was not seen as having much
influence on the formation of Mr. Harper's China
policy. Ironically, by naming a pro-business
representative, Mr. Harper appears to be
signalling a move toward some of the policy
positions that Mr. Wright is believed to have been privately arguing for.

"I think David would be fabulous. He's a real
believer in China. Rob Wright has been great as
well," said Fred Spoke, managing director of
Canada Wood China, an umbrella group representing
the Canadian forestry industry in China. "It's
very important we have some real champions for China here."

Mr. Spoke, like Mr. Mulroney, once headed the
Canada-China Business Council, a body that has
been criticized for having too much influence on
the Canada-China relationship. Founded by Power
Corp. chairman Paul Desmarais, its current board
of directors includes heavyweights such as former
trade minister David Emerson; Sergio Marchi,
another former trade minister, was its president
until last year. Some of the sharpest critics of
the CCBC's influence over Canada's old
business-first China policy, particularly during
the years Jean Chrétien was prime minister, have
been members of the current government.

When Mr. Day travels to the southwestern city of
Chengdu next week to unveil a plaque celebrating
the opening of a Canadian Trade Office there, it
will be another signal that the Conservative
government has started to see things the CCBC's
way. The five "new" trade offices that Canada is
opening around China are located in the cities
where the CCBC and the Department of Foreign
Affairs and International Trade had joint offices
until they were closed over concerns they were
doing a better job representing the business
lobby than the Canadian government.

While the Harper government's recent moves to
make nice with Beijing have inspired sighs of
relief in the business community, they've left
others - who thought they had an ally in the
Canadian government - feeling abandoned. Tibetan
exiles and Chinese human-rights activists had
previously praised Mr. Harper and his government
for their outspoken support of their causes.

Mr. Harper awarded the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan
spiritual and political leader, honorary Canadian
citizenship in 2006. The Prime Minister
repeatedly said that "important Canadian values"
needed to take precedence over the "almighty
dollar" in Canada's dealings with China.

"It's alarming for us the way that the Harper
government has so quickly done an about-face on
Tibet," said Lhadon Tethong, the Canadian-born
executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.

With reports from Carolynne Wheeler in Beijing and Campbell Clark in Ottawa

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