The setting must have looked familiar to Justin Trudeau as he returned to a gleaming state guesthouse in Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, his second visit in 15 months.
This time, however, the prime minister found himself sitting across from a far more dominant ruler of the Asian superpower.
Xi’s progression since his last meeting with Trudeau has meaningful implications for Canada, experts argue — particularly as Ottawa navigates the risks of closer ties with Xi’s increasingly assertive China.
In recent months, the ambitious Xi has significantly tightened his grip on the leadership to become China’s most powerful figure in decades.
‘The world’s most powerful man’
Xi solidified his position during the ruling Communist Party’s congress in October when his name and policies were formally enshrined into the party’s constitution. The change has elevated him to a status shared only by China’s core Communist leaders, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
Ahead of the congress, The Economist magazine had already dubbed Xi “the world’s most powerful man.”
Enter Trudeau, who met with Xi in China for the first time since September 2016. Since then, their governments have been engaged in exploratory talks on a free-trade agreement.
On the one hand, Canada sees vast opportunity in forging a deeper business relationship with China, the world’s second-largest economy.
On the flip side, Trudeau is constantly under pressure to transmit Canadian concerns to Chinese leaders over the country’s record on human rights and its rule of law. Before Tuesday’s meeting, Trudeau insisted he wouldn’t hesitate to raise Canada’s unease about China directly with Xi.
This time, however, experts believe Trudeau’s words have likely had a tougher time getting through.
“I do think that Mr. Trudeau is probably meeting a different Xi — a Xi who is much more confident and who is much more dismissive of accommodating the concerns of the West,” said Charles Burton, a political science professor at Brock University and a former Canadian diplomat.
Indeed, Burton said he believes Trudeau’s visit this week has already shown signs of China’s self-assured shift.
I do think that Mr. Trudeau is probably meeting a different Xi — a Xi who is much more confident and who is much more dismissive of accommodating the concerns of the West.Charles Burton
Earlier this week, the two sides announced they were not ready to move beyond the current phase of exploratory trade talks — despite China’s growing impatience to launch formal negotiations with Canada.
Trudeau has been pushing for a progressive trade deal with China that would address issues such as gender equality, the environment and labour rights.
It’s not yet clear just how unwelcome Canada’s proposed progressive chapters were in Beijing, but experts called it unlikely Xi’s group would consider entertaining them.
Hongying Wang, a political science professor from University of Waterloo, said Xi has already left his mark on China’s governance structure, leading it away from the collective approach of the country’s past towards a more autocratic, top-down style.
“It’s a matter of principle, I think, for the Canadian government to state its position — I guess the challenge is how do you state your position without completely cutting off any hopes of a good trade relationship? It’s a very hard balance,” Wang said.
“I really don’t think he’s someone anyone can press into something he doesn’t want to do.”
China isn’t rising — it has risen
Diana Fu, an expert in Asian politics from the University of Toronto, said Xi’s emergence means Trudeau will have to continue approaching the Chinese president “carefully and tactfully” because he’s shown he won’t bow to foreign powers.
“Any negotiations with the Xi administration will have to consider how to deal with not a rising China, but a risen one — this makes it more difficult than perhaps any other … talks previously,” Fu wrote in an email.
“How do you convince the Canadian public that potential economic benefits of free trade offsets concern over diametrically opposing values?”
Canada, however, continues to be of interest to Xi’s China.
While the two countries have yet to become major trading partners, Canada offers many possibilities, particularly when it comes to agriculture, clean technology and education.
“I think Canada is a very desirable partner and certainly a very important ally of the U.S. that China would like to win some support from, because China has always seen the U.S. as this potential rival,” Wang said.
“Maybe China doesn’t see Canada as very important yet, (but) the potential is definitely there.”
Canada is clearly trying to woo China as well: John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, said he met Xi within 24 hours of presenting his credentials earlier this year.
Expecting to meet a “scary” leader, McCallum instead came away with a much different impression, saying he was “taken aback in a positive way” by Xi.
Xi hopes to fill America’s void
Make no mistake, however: on the world stage, Xi is overseeing an expanding Chinese presence, hoping to step into the global void created by a retreating United States under Donald Trump.
Xi has also pushed a more aggressive military presence in the South China Sea with the construction of artificial islands over the objections from nearby neighbouring countries. He’s built up China’s navy and has opened the country’s first foreign military base in Djibouti.
His most ambitious project is the massive “One Belt, One Road” initiative that will involve spending hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure along a corridor spanning more than 60 countries. The injection of Chinese capital along the route will allow China to buy influence in those countries, numerous analysts have said.
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