"What, in concrete terms, will flow from all this goodwill?"
The question could be posed of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to China this week, but in this case it was actually asked 39 years ago, in a CBC news report I came across regarding the visit of a very different Canadian leader, Pierre Trudeau, to a very different China.
Back then, Mr. Trudeau was trying out a strategy that Mr. Harper once rejected on principle (as he does most things Mr. Trudeau believed in), but is now embracing: engaging the Communist Party leadership in hopes of winning influence with them. Four decades on from Canada's first stab at it, many digits have been added to the bilateral trade and investment figures, but what else has changed substantially in the relationship between Beijing and Ottawa?
Watching the CBC report from October 1973 is a reminder that these are two countries that still don't know each other very well four decades on. Close your eyes (so you can't see his mutton chops and floppy bow-tie) and much of what reporter Ron Collister said then could be repeated today.
"Exchanges galore, scientific, medical, cultural – the agreements, to quote one Canadian official, cover everything but the kitchen sink," Mr. Collister intoned, sitting with his arms crossed in front of what appears to be a still photograph of Beijing's main railway station.
Canada was going to open a new consulate in "Canton" (better known these days as Guangzhou), Mr. Collister reported, an act that would be repeated in 2009 when Canada added trade offices in six more Chinese cities. But there were concerns about how Canadian businessmen would be treated in the Chinese market.
As Mr. Collister put it: "Will there be, in fact as well as in promise, easier access for Canadian businessmen generally? The Chinese have let in only the businessmen selling the goods they want."
The Chinese market has, of course, opened dramatically since then, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty. And more than a few Canadian businesspeople made their fortunes along the way. But this remains a unique market, a place where the success or failure of an enterprise can often be determined by the whim (or greed) of a local official, and where the foreigner who feels maligned has little recourse. The justice system is rarely a friend here.
So Mr. Harper comes to China 39 years after Mr. Trudeau, hoping for one more agreement to cover that kitchen sink – a foreign investment protection agreement (or "a FIPA," as diplomats who need more time off call it) that would hopefully give Canadian companies another piece of paper to waive around in such disputes.
Negotiations towards a FIPA have been taking place since 1993, but expectations are high that Mr. Harper and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao can finally sign one this week in Beijing. But some believe Mr. Harper will either have to accept a weak deal or none at all with a rising China that doesn't seem in the mood to make compromises (as China-watcher Charles Burton put it, "terms like 'reciprocal fairness' or a 'level playing field' are not in the vocabulary of the Chinese leadership nowadays, and Canada can like it or lump it.")
The Chinese side certainly isn't making any promises. "The prospect of economic and trade cooperation is bright, so I believe that we will have a lot of fruits during this visit," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told me when we chatted today about the upcoming visit. "But of course, as far as the investment protection agreement, my colleagues in the Commerce Ministry, they are working very hard with the Canadian side, so hopefully we can have some result for this visit."
And even if there is a deal, as Mr. Collister asked 39 years ago, "How will Peking interpret the agreements?"
Of course, the relationship has never just been about trade. Mr. Trudeau met with a seemingly doting Chairman Mao in 1973, and came away with the impression that the Chinese leader was "very interested in our northern reaches, in questions relating to the Arctic" – another topic sure to arise when Mr. Harper meets President Hu Jintao this week. They also "discussed the Middle East at some length," Mr. Trudeau said, a ritual that will be repeated just as ineffectually in 2012.
Unmentioned by Mr. Trudeau (and the CBC) in 1973 was the topic of how China's government treats its people, a glaring omission given that the country's bloody Cultural Revolution was then in full swing.
Following a year in which Human Rights Watch delivered another scathing report on the Communist Party's intolerance of dissent, will Mr. Harper at least deviate from the decades-old script on that point? (The Prime Minister made no mention of human rights in a "written interview" he gave to China's official Xinhua newswire ahead of the trip.
Or would we lose the pandas after 40 years of waiting?