Harper to visit China, s
China's ambassador to Canada Zhang Junsai (L) meets with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa January 11, 2012. Reuters

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is preparing for a crucial state visit this week to China where, among other things, he is expected to discuss selling Canadian oil products to the Asian giant.

Harper is anxious to construct a Pacific oil pipeline after President Barack Obama rejected the building of a route from Alberta to Texas by TransCanada’s Keystone XL, largely on environmental and safety concerns.

A spokesman for Harper told the Associated Press that it is absolutely in Canada's interests to build a new pipeline to transport oil to China.

CBC reported that 99 percent of Canadian crude oil is currently shipped to the United States -- Harper clearly wants to diversify his country’s customer base for energy products.

BBC reported that Chinese state-owned companies have already invested in excess of $16-billion in Canadian energy projects, including oil-sands, over the past two years.

One of those firms, China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (better known as Sinopec) has invested in a proposed pipeline that would provide an alternate route for oil to be shipped from Alberta oilfields.

Our government is committed to moving our relationship with China forward by focusing on deepening economic ties, including opening new markets, and setting the foundation for long-term growth, Harper said last month.

The Prime Minister will be accompanied by four cabinet ministers, including the ministers of natural resources, trade and foreign affairs, as well as seven MPs. Harper is expected to meet with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, during his sojourn to Beijing and two other Chinese cities.

Harper previously visited China in 2009.

CBC reported that when Harper first took office in 2006, relations between Canada and China were cold, largely over Beijing’s human rights record. Indeed, Harper skipped the 2008 Summer Olympics and even met with the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, enraging Chinese government officials.

After Harper’s tense visit to Beijing three years ago, relations started to thaw, leading to Hu Jintao’s journey to Canada in 2010.

Bilateral trade between the two countries totaled $58-billion in 2010, according to the Vancouver Sun newspaper – having tripled since 2001 -- making Canada the Middle Kingdom’s second biggest two-way trade partner after the United States.

However, according to CBC, it’s not an equal relationship – Canada’s share of that trade amounted to only $13.2-billion, mostly exports of natural resources.

The Sun also noted that Canada’s direct investment in China totaled $4.8 billion in 2010, while Chinese direct investment in Canada amounted to $14.1 billion.

Moreover, given the growing crisis regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Harper may seek to pressure China into buying its oil from other countries, like Canada. China is currently Iran’s number one crude oil importer, in defiance of the sanctions placed on Teheran by western nations.

It is unclear if Harper will press China on its human rights record and repressive government.

One of the ministers who will accompany Harper to China, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, has been a vociferous critic of Beijing’s domestic policies and treatment of dissidents.

Baird recently said at a speech delivered in Britain: In China, we see Roman Catholic priests, Christian clergy and their laity, worshipping outside of state-sanctioned boundaries, who are continually subject to raids, arrests, and detention. We see Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims face harassment, and physical intimidation.

Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada warned Canadian media: The human rights situation in China has worsened recently and simply cannot be ignored. It's not about wagging a finger. It's not about moralizing. It is about having a constructive discussion between friends, between countries that have some shared interests about some common universal values.

However, it is likely to be trade and investment issues that will dominate Harper’s parleys with his Chinese counterparts.

Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, told CBC: You're dealing with a power [China] now that has influence all over the world. I would argue that our prime minister would certainly, I hope, take advantage of this opportunity to talk about those key issues — Middle East, peace process, you name it. There's almost nothing where China doesn't have an entree now because of its economic power or clout on the UN Security Council.

Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, told the Vancouver Sun newspaper: What [Harper] is doing is regularizing contact between Beijing and Ottawa at the highest level and making China a part of the Canadian prime minister's diplomatic routine. China is not in the same league yet as the United States (in economic importance), but it is approaching that level of importance.