Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should press ahead with efforts to deepen Canada’s relationship with China, according to a potential contender to lead the opposition Conservative Party.
Peter MacKay, a longtime minister under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said weakness in the energy sector that has sapped Chinese direct investment in Canada should not deter the country and its companies from seeking new ties.
“China isn’t going away or looking away, they’re simply diversifying their efforts,” MacKay said in an interview. “I think China has overall a very positive impression of Canada in spite of the fact their investments have fallen significantly.”
The previous Conservative government had a mixed record with China on economic matters, seeking it as a market for its commodities while restricting its ability to acquire majority stakes in Canada, particularly in energy and technology.
MacKay, a lawyer, said his government did actively seek investment from the Asian country but ran out of time to complete any major deals before the October election. A report this month by his firm, Baker & McKenzie LLP, found that Chinese investment in Canada fell to $1.5 billion in 2015, its lowest level since 2009. It also found Chinese investment in Europe and the U.S. reached record levels last year.
Canadian companies “can compete and can step up their game in concert with the United States and Europe,” said MacKay, who didn’t seek re-election last year. He was justice minister until the October vote that brought Trudeau’s Liberals to power, with previous stints as minister of defense and foreign affairs under Harper.
While Chinese energy investment into Canada fell 81 percent last year, Baker & McKenzie found increasing interest in Canadian infrastructure, transportation and the entertainment industry. Chinese investors spent $473 million on Canadian commercial real estate in 2015, according to the law firm’s report.
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With commodity prices slumping, “I think there’s been a little bit of a chill, but what we’re underscoring here is look beyond energy,” MacKay said.
Trudeau is expected to make his first official visit to China this year for the Group of 20 leaders summit. He told Bloomberg this month he hopes to strengthen ties. “There’s a tremendous amount Canada can benefit from China, but there’s also a significant amount that China can benefit from Canada,” Trudeau said in a March 2 interview.
MacKay applauded Trudeau’s stand thus far. The new government has “very much signaled that Canada is very much open for business,” MacKay said. “I think that’s positive.”
The 50-year-old hails from Canada’s east coast and was leader of the Progressive Conservative Party when it merged with the upstart western-based Canadian Alliance to create Canada’s united Conservative Party under Harper. Now on the opposition benches under interim chief Rona Ambrose, the Conservatives will choose a new permanent leader next year.
MacKay acknowledged he’s considering mounting a leadership campaign, and has given multiple media interviews over the past week. “I haven’t ruled it out, but it’s not my day-to-day focus either,” he said.
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