Premier Horgan setting sights on China as first foreign visit

Asian economic powerhouse continues to be a high-priority destination, say observers

B.C. premier John Horgan is reportedly anxious to plan to make China his first foreign visit destination | Submitted

New B.C. Premier John Horgan’s plan to make China his first foreign visit destination is an “easy” choice, say observers.

Brian Krieger, acting assistant deputy minister for Jobs, Trade and Technology, recently told a trade delegation from Jiangsu province that Horgan is “anxious” to take a trip to China as his first outbound mission.

“Our province has organized many missions to China in recent years,” Krieger said at the July event, which was hosted by the Canada China Business Council in Vancouver. “We’ll be working on [Horgan’s trade mission to China] very soon, I’m quite sure.”

A Jobs, Trade & Technology Ministry spokesman cited former NDP premiers Dave Barrett and Mike Harcourt as examples of a B.C. premier visiting China. Horgan’s predecessor – former Liberal leader Christy Clark – led delegations to China in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Other ministers also made near-annual visits to the country.

The China focus makes sense because the country is B.C.’s second-largest trading partner and the destination for 18.4% of the province’s commodity exports, said Simon Fraser University political science professor Patrick Smith. The areas where China shows most interest – resources, technology and real estate – are among B.C.’s leading sectors.

“It is easy to see why an early China visit would be on John Horgan’s agenda,” Smith said, noting the Liberal government’s previous focus on selling liquefied natural gas (LNG) to China and other Asian economies. “LNG got a lot of the Clark government’s focus and the U.S.-Canada softwood lumber dispute might make China’s lumber trade links even more significant.”

Provincial historian and former B.C. Liberal MLA David Mitchell said the province has to focus its attention abroad early, given its geographic proximity to Asia and distance from Ottawa.

“B.C. has long been a small, open economy that’s very reliant on trade,” said Mitchell, now president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. “In the past, it has meant that a new premier would go to Ottawa first, then make a visit to the United States. But increasingly, over the last few generations, there has been an increasing profile for Asia-related trade issues.”

That realization might have first emerged as early as 1971, when then-premier W.A.C. Bennett, during the opening of the Roberts Bank coal port terminal, told a crowd “there are great mountains separating B.C. from Ottawa, but between us and Japan, there’s only the Peaceful Sea (Pacific Ocean).”

“What Bennett was pointing out was that B.C.’s trade ties with Asia have typically been easier than the complex trade and political arrangements within Canada and North America,” Mitchell said. “Even though in 1971 it was Japan, no country in the world today can have an effective trade strategy without China in it. So, for Horgan to be signalling a trip to China as one of his first as premier, I think it augers well for this NDP government that they are not closed-minded.”

At the Jiangsu delegation meeting, Krieger outlined the NDP’s priority sectors: clean technology, green building construction, information/communications technology, digital animation and life sciences. Notable by its absence: resources.

Mitchell said the shifting from the Liberals’ commodity-centric focus is smart, given that Clark’s government had little to show for its efforts to persuade China and other Asian partners on the viability of B.C. LNG. However, simply making an early visit or having annual missions are not enough.

B.C. has been able to open the Chinese market to its cherries and blueberries in recent years, but many trade missions have more prominently featured the signing of memorandums of understanding – documents whose value is largely symbolic.

“There needs to be something more tangible to come out of these efforts,” Mitchell said. “Whether the NDP can be successful [in China] remains to be seen. It’s probably a longer relationship-building exercise … but it will only work with extraordinary effort. There needs to be repeated and constant effort, not only on the part of the premier, but the ministers, business leaders, community leaders and others.”

Challenges, including whether the NDP-Green minority government can last long enough to carry out policy, as well as China’s well-documented human rights issue, need to be considered by Horgan’s government to create a holistic overall strategy, said Mitchell.

“The issues around human rights in China is not insignificant,” Mitchell said. “But China’s also such a huge market, and even though it may be slowing down, the growth rate is still enviable by any North American standard. It has be part of a bigger overall strategy.”