OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay embarks on his long-awaited first trip to China this week, arguing that Canada can press its case for human rights "with tact" while still building on the robust business relationship with the economic giant.
"I agree that the relationship with China needs some nurturing, as it would with any large, complex, multi-faceted relationship ...," Mr. MacKay said in an interview yesterday.
"They've come some distance from where they were," he added, "and if we're able to position ourselves as a trusted ally and an interested country that isn't making these pronouncements in a provocative way, but in a helpful way, then I think Canada is positioned very well to influence China positively."
Mr. MacKay's trip comes a week after the controversial sentencing of Huseyin Celil, an Islamic religious leader and Canadian citizen who was condemned by a Chinese court to life in prison. The minister leaves Wednesday, travelling first to Europe for meetings with NATO foreign ministers.
He has pledged to raise the issue of Mr. Celil with his Chinese hosts and to review a 1999 agreement with China on consular relations. Sources said Mr. MacKay may also make mention of opening a series of new trade offices. The visit comes after a year of tension between the two nations, prompted in part by the Celil case.
Last fall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chinese officials traded jabs prior to a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit.
Mr. Harper said before the meeting that Canada would not sell out its values in return for unfettered access to Chinese markets.
Mr. MacKay acknowledged yesterday that the Conservative government has taken a different tack than the Liberals before it, but said that doesn't mean the Tories can't position themselves as a trusted partner.
"We need to engage with China further on terms that we feel are appropriate, are positive and moving in a direction that we feel are consistent with Canadian values; that includes promotion of democracy, that includes enhanced human rights," he said.
"Those goals can be achieved without having a deterioration in our commercial partnership or our trade relationship, in my view, if it's done with tact and if it's done without being viewed or characterized as confrontational."
The meeting comes as some experts say it appears the Conservative government may be taking some steps to improve the relationship with Beijing.
It has, for example, moved to push forward with a plan to strengthen economic, social and educational ties. The government's former deputy minister of foreign affairs, Peter Harder, met with counterparts last December to set an agenda to continue talks about the Strategic Partnership, a dialogue that had all but stopped last fall after Canada cooled its relations with the Chinese.
Mr. Harder said he sees some signs of increased engagement.
"I do think there is a deliberate attempt to, and strategy to, engage China on a broader range of issues and to ensure that we develop multi-faceted engagement," he said.
"Canada, I would argue, is losing relative position in China and yet China continues to be our second-largest trading partner ... This is not an inconsequential relationship."
Mr. MacKay also said the two governments plan to re-engage in a human-rights dialogue that had spurred sharp criticisms from some members of the Conservative government. A subcommittee headed by Tory MP Jason Kenney is expected to issue a report criticizing the dialogue as ineffective and asking for improvements.
"This has simply been a matter of getting all the right people around the table at the right time," Mr. MacKay said, adding that he has asked his deputy about getting the group back together again.