Updated Sat. Apr. 28 2007 7:10 AM ET
Mary Nersessian, CTV.ca News
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay embarks this week on his long-anticipated first-ever trip to China, a visit that could spell failure or fortune for bilateral relations.
Observers say MacKay is walking a fine line with China that could prove disastrous if he falters.
On one hand, the economic giant offers robust business prospects. On the other, China has warned renewed criticism could erode trust between the nations, and hurt trade relations.
The Tories are under mounting pressure to mend frayed relations with China, which began to unravel last year.
"It's extremely important that Peter Mackay is making this trip at this time, I think it signals something of a warmer approach by Ottawa," Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada Co-CEO Paul Evans told CTV.ca in a telephone interview from Vancouver.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to reject an invitation to visit Beijing and decline to send any senior ministers until later in the year was perceived as an affront, one that set the tone for a year of frosty relations.
MacKay left for his trip on Wednesday, heading first to Europe, where he will meet with NATO foreign ministers. He visits China April 29 to May 1.
MacKay is slated to "set priorities for productive co-operation between Canada and China" according to a press release issued from the Foreign Affairs department.
Human rights, commercial relations and broader issues, such as global warming, are also likely to be on the table for talks, Evans suspects.
But to him, "more important the content of the discussions is going to be that opportunity to build a relationship and to get a feel for the pace and dynamism of contemporary China," he said.
The foreign affairs minister is also to discuss the contentious case of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian Muslim activist recently sentenced to life in prison for alleged terror links.
Canada has been aggressively lobbying for his release, and his case is just one of a number of irritants in Canada-China relations since the Tories took power in January.
York University professor emeritus Bernie Frolic, a leading expert on Canada's relations with China, says the Conservative government's agenda has been to focus on human rights, a strategy that may have misfired.
"In the process of doing this, other parts of our relationship seem have to been somewhat neglected by the present government," he told CTV.ca.
Consequently, the focus on human rights has "resulted in a poor working relationship with the top levels of the Chinese state," said Frolic, who is writing a book on Canadian-Chinese relations.
"The point is that our prime minister hasn't gone to China, and none of our senior ministers went. Now, finally, our foreign affairs minister is going, and that's important because at last we're coming out of this dark age where everything was put on hold," he said.
MacKay is tasked with the duty of telling his Chinese counterparts that Canada won't stand for human rights infringement. But at the same time, he must remind the Chinese of their relationship with Canadians, Frolic said.
"We've got energy and raw materials that China wants, China has manufactured goods that we want -- we want to try to figure out how China can invest more in Canadian economy," Frolic said.
"We need to find a way to discuss this in a way that is not confrontational and remind them we've had a very good working relationship since 1970 and get it back on the right track. We can't ignore China," he said.
CTV.ca tracks the rocky relationship between China and Canada.
The federal government is "concerned" that Chinese spies are stealing Canada's industrial and high-technology secrets, MacKay tells CTV.
In an exclusive interview with CTV later that month, China's ambassador to Canada Ambassador rejects claims that Chinese spies are stealing Canada's industrial and high-tech secrets.
Also that month, a decision to allow Chinese political dissident Lu Decheng to emigrate to Canada raises tensions between Beijing and Ottawa.
China imprisoned Lu for nine years after he defaced a portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square with paint.
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa dismisses a report by two prominent Canadian investigators that claims China has harvested the organs of Falun Gong prisoners.
Later that month, China complains to the Canadian government about its decision to bestow honorary citizenship on the Dalai Lama, saying the gesture could harm relations.
An official with the Chinese embassy in Ottawa says Beijing has voiced its disapproval to the prime minister, and demands that Ottawa continues to recognize Tibet as a part of China.
Harper and Chinese officials trades jabs prior to a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.
"I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values -- our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights,'' Harper says. "They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar.''
Harper makes the contentious remarks after the Chinese government abruptly cancels a private meeting between himself and China's President Hu Jintao.
The rhetoric from the Canadian prime minister prompts a Chinese backlash and a storm of protest from Canadian industries with interests in China.
During a high-profile visit to China, International Trade Minister David Emerson signs two agreements with China
The first is a Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement that will boost collaborative research and development activities between the two countries in both the private and public sectors.
The second initiative is a signed Memorandum of Understanding that will open the door to co-operation on trade gateways and corridors between Canada and China.
Tensions mount when Celil appears at the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang's capital without a Canadian diplomat present, which violates his right as a Canadian citizen.
Ahead of his trip to Beijing, MacKay argues that Ottawa can push its human rights agenda "with tact" while working on renewing the business relationship with China.
"I agree that the relationship with China needs some nurturing, as it would with any large, complex, multi-faceted relationship ...," MacKay tells The Globe and Mail.
Also in April, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issues a warning that Canada has no right to interfere in the case Celil.
"We believe the case is China's internal affair and in essence relates to anti-terrorism,'' says Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao at a regular news briefing. "It has no connection with Canada. We hope the Canadian side will not interfere with China's internal affairs under this pretext.''