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On first state visit to China, Canada’s Trudeau expected to put ties on ‘more even keel’

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will seek to reset relations and boost trade with China during his first official visit to the world’s second-largest economy.

Canada is grappling with a contracting economy, and while Chinese investment would give a boost back home, Trudeau faces public concerns over China’s growing presence in their country and unease over its human rights record, observers say.

Trudeau’s eight day-trip beginning on Tuesday will take him to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hangzhou for the Group of 20 summit, and comparisons with his father’s own visit to China are expected. Canada, under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau, was among the first Western countries to establish diplomatic ties with modern China, and he toasted premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People in October 1973.

What to expect from Justin Trudeau’s trip to China

But for much of the recent decade, ties have been on less solid ground. Justin Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper promised when he took office he would not back away from criticising China over human rights abuses, and while he strengthened business ties, he also introduced measures to restrict takeovers in the oil sands industry by state-owned companies.

“There is … the intention of the Trudeau government to put Canada-China relations back on a more even keel, after the inconsistencies of the Harper government, where Canada blew hot and cold on China,” said Hugh Stephens, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation and Executive Fellow for the School of Public Policy at University of Calgary.

Stephens said Canada was expected to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the two sides could announce plans to “study the modalities” of a free-trade deal.

China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, with US$85 billion in trade last year. But its economy is suffering from lower oil prices and weaker US demand for its exports.

While Trudeau is overseas, Statistics Canada is expected to release data showing the economy shrank by 1.5 per cent in the second quarter.

In an interview with Canadian broadcaster CTV, Trudeau said the rise of the middle class in China offered a tremendous opportunity for his country. But observers said talks might not be easy. Beijing has said it wants a trade deal, but also restrictions lifted on Chinese state-owned investments in Canada’s oil and gas sector.

China’s tightening rules on imports of canola – a chief Canadian export – may also overshadow talks. “Canada will not open negotiations when a key export has been stopped,” said Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

Several Canadian observers also said the government remained cautious towards China.

Ottawa complained earlier this year after Foreign Minister Wang lashed out at a Canadian journalist who asked about human rights during the official’s visit.

China’s foreign minister scolds Canadian journalist for asking question about human rights

“The legacy of Pierre Trudeau … is an enormous boon for Justin Trudeau,” said Charles Burton, a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing who is now a professor at Brock University.

“The political context of Pierre Trudeau’s time was very different. Today polls show Canadian public opinion is very negative on [China’s] … regime over human rights, suppression of freedom of expression and internet, and strongly opposed to Chinese state investment in Canada.”

The denial of visas to China for Canadian Chinese using their Canadian passports has also attracted concern.

Jeremy Paltiel, a China watcher at Carleton University, said both sides should address the concern “at a time when there are so many Chinese immigrants to Canada as well as dual nationals who wish to maintain ties with both countries”.