Building stronger Canada-China relations

(Calgary) China has taken just a little over 10 years to become Canada’s second-largest trading partner. Current Chinese investment in Canada sits at about $20 billion, but that number could be up to $200 billion within a decade or two, furthering cultural development between the two countries, says Gordon Houlden, director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute.

Houlden says some work needs to be done to strengthen intercultural growth, economic development and exchanges between China and Canada, especially in creating the right environment to promote stronger ties in business, culture and innovation. That’s partly why Houlden brought together 80 representatives from government, the private sector, and academic and research communities to consider the challenges and opportunities during a conference May 4 in Calgary.

“The point of the conference was not to bring together deal makers or sources of capital,” says Houlden, who is also a political science professor at the U of A. “It was to examine the policy dimensions, the issues, the functioning of the Investment Canada Act: how it works with respect to Chinese investments, the barriers to Chinese investments in Canada, issues of business cultures, language and ways of doing business—all of which are distinct between these two cultures.”

Chinese ambassador Zhang Junsai, who spoke at the conference, says he made it a priority to attend the meeting to express his gratitude for the work being done by the U of A’s China Institute. “I come because I would like to personally thank Mr. Houlden and his colleagues of the China Institute for their support to the development of China–Canada relations,” Junsai said.  

The ambassador says the meeting was very important, underscoring recent developments in the world, such as debt crisis in the United States and Europe, excess liquidity in the international market and fluctuations in commodity prices.

“These exchanges of high-level visits opened up new chapters for comprehensive bilateral co-operation,” he said. “Currently, trade and economic ties are the most vigorous part in the bilateral relations between our two countries. The interests of China and Canada are converging in an unprecedented way. China is ready to be more open and active in pushing forward the mutually beneficial co-operation between China and Canada, so as to achieve prosperity for our two peoples.”

The U of A, through the China Institute, is playing a key role in creating opportunities that bring the two countries together, says ambassador Zhang—a statement echoed by Houlden, who says the focus is on building bridges between China and Canada.

“In this province, we’re the leading institution dissecting the Canada–China relationship and what it means for both countries,” Houlden said. “We do this to advance the public good, not just economically, but culturally for both Canadians and Chinese. The world tends to see China now only as an economic story, but we believe that’s just the first wave, because China is also about civilization. It has a complex, rich culture.”

Houlden says the institute not only facilitates research, industry and cultural interests between the two countries, but also works to support efforts by the federal and provincial governments on China, considering “the emphasis by Prime Minister Stephen Harper before and after his recent trip to China, and the emphasis by Premier Alison Redford subsequent to the most recent election; both leaders have identified Asia and China in particular as a focus for the future of the Canadian economy.”

The provincial government recently asked the institute to prepare a study on how Alberta can meet China’s energy needs. Houlden says Alberta is a particularly attractive target for China—and it’s not just about energy. “Increasingly, agriculture is becoming a very high-tech business. It involves a lot of biogenetics, it involves processing, and these could be very much value-added areas,” he said. “By investing and co-operating with Albertan companies, Chinese companies can acquire skill sets and technologies that they lack in their own energy resources.”

The China Institute is also a cultural hub through which the U of A engages with China through student exchanges, collaborative research and cultural exchanges. The university now has more than two dozen programs with universities across China. These include such leading Chinese institutions as the Tsinghua, Nanjing and Zhejiang universities. Houlden says such partnerships are necessary in today’s global world.

“Partnerships with top Chinese institutions are essential in a 21st century where China will play an increasingly prominent role.”