Foreign Minister John Baird described China as a "friend" and "ally" Monday, then, in a further signal of efforts to improve ties, said the Harper government shares Beijing's desire to repatriate a fugitive seeking refuge in Canada.
Mr. Baird, making Beijing his first official bilateral trip as foreign minister, stressed the importance of China to Canada's economic prosperity and argued that it's better to press human-rights concerns directly with senior Chinese officials in private meetings than simply "griping" from home.
And he signalled that the case of Lai Changxing, accused of netting billions in China through smuggling and bribery, is one in which Ottawa and Beijing share common cause: Both countries, he said, feel strongly about dealing with "fraudsters."
Mr. Lai's case has been an irritant to relations between Ottawa and Beijing since he fled to Canada in 1999, fighting extradition with arguments that he could face death or torture if he were returned to China. And though his case was quiet since 2007, it was revived this month when Canadian immigration authorities issued an opinion that Mr. Lai would not be mistreated if he were returned and launched a new rush to deport him.
Mr. Baird shrugged off questions about whether the move was timed to his visit, insisting that politicians have no say in the case.
"There's no timing in my visit. I think most independent observers of the legal case will know that an elected official, let alone a minister, has no say in terms of the timing of the return," he told reporters on a conference call from Beijing. "I did caution my Chinese counterpart that they shouldn't count on it being overly expeditious."
He also said: "Obviously the government is before the courts, government agencies' petitions are before the courts to make our case for the extradition of this individual."
"I'm prevented from going into specifics on the individual case. But I can say this … The one thing I've found, [where] there's significant alignment is both the Canadian people and the Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white-collar fraudsters."
Mr. Baird's words are certainly something that Chinese officials want to hear. They have pressed for the return of a man they view as a well-connected criminal who eluded capture.
"It's significant," said Gordon Houlden, director of the University of Alberta's China Institute, adding that the language about Mr. Lai was part of the general warming of the tone. Mr. Baird, he said, could have simply said the courts would decide the matter without stressing Canadian sympathy about "fraudsters" to signal how badly Ottawa wants him out, "but they added that extra phrase."
Outside a detention review hearing in Vancouver on Monday, Mr. Lai's lawyer, Darryl Larson, said the Mr. Baird's comments showed that the case has political overtones..
"I think it again underscores that this is all about politics instead of about whether Mr. Lai would be safe [in a Chinese jail] or not," said Mr. Larson.
The Immigration and Refugee Board hearing was adjourned until Tuesday after a surprise police witness testified Mr. Lai had been running an illegal gaming operation in Richmond in 2009.
Though Canadian governments have long sought to extradite Mr. Lai, the new tone is a symbol of how the relationship has changed for Mr. Harper's government. In 2006, Mr. Harper annoyed Beijing with criticism of secret trials for a political prisoner; now Ottawa is expressing sympathy with China's desire to bring a man to justice. As a signal of warmer ties, Mr. Baird was given a meeting with China's powerful, rising vice-premier, Li Keqiang.
Mr. Lai's long-running attempts to fight extradition have seen Canadian courts raise a concern that offends authorities in Beijing: that China's legal system lacks the due process to ensure the case is decided fairly and that a high-profile suspect wouldn't be abused.
Mr. Lai is hardly a poster boy: He has admitted he skirted Chinese law but insists he only took advantage of the murky customs laws of the day.
Mr. Baird has made improving relations an early priority, saying he "gets it" and that China will be important to Canada's economic prosperity. On Monday, he told reporters that Canada welcomes Chinese investment in Canada, including in its oil and gas sector. He described his discussions on Libya with China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, as an opportunity to obtain the "perspective of an important ally."
The foreign minister said he did raise human-rights issues with Mr. Yang, but didn't say which ones – although when asked by a reporter if he raised questions of discrimination of Falun Gong practitioners he said he did. He argued that raising those issues face-to-face is better than criticizing from Canada.
"One of the things with friends, you can have good exchanges on issues. I think you're better to have those exchanges than by sitting at home and griping," he said.