Much ink was spilled on the state of Canada-China relations during Prime Minister Harper’s visit to China last week. Canadian business circles expressed considerable regret at the long gap since the previous visit to China by a Canadian Prime Minister. Mr. Harper does not enjoy the same closeness to Bay Street as some of his predecessors. Nor does he have the boldness of Nicolas Sarkozy who can criticize China at a news conference at the Élysée and travel to Beijing the same day to help Areva or EADS land a major contract.

Notwithstanding repeated criticism pertaining to the lack of real dialogue with China since 2006, Prime Minister Harper’s trip (and his trip to India in November) could bring about significant benefits over and above financial spin-offs. For several years already, the influence of emerging nations has been spreading and their ambition has reached beyond the mere potential of their domestic economies. The recent decision of the G8 to entrust to the G20 responsibility for all financial matters is not unrelated to the anxiousness of emerging nations. Having helped to implement global solutions to the current recession, emerging nations had no intention of sitting idle until the next crisis triggered by shortcomings of financial regulatory systems in certain G8 countries.

It will soon be challenging, if not impossible, for the G8 not to convene at least China, India and Brazil to participate fully in their deliberations. The day surely is close where the G20 will step in and replace the G8 altogether.

Canada must adjust to these geopolitical changes, failing which its influence could be eroded. It already enjoys an enviable reputation and the current economic crisis allowed Canada to shine further in large part thanks to its stellar financial regulatory system. However, in order to distinguish itself among a larger group of nations, Canada must develop closer bilateral ties with emerging countries.

To achieve this goal, one would expect the Prime Minister to travel abroad more frequently. Although he often meets other heads of government at various annual summits, nothing replaces an official visit (particularly a second or third visit). The Prime Minister’s trips to India and China set the right tone, why not Brazil next?

Canada must also review its ambassadorial appointments. Appointments to certain emerging countries could be modelled on appointments to Washington where we typically dispatch an ambassador who enjoys privileged access to the Prime Minister. This would send an unequivocal message and would most certainly build goodwill.

We should also consider initiating free trade talks with certain emerging nations. One has to recognize that winds of pessimism are blowing over the Doha Round, which the World Trade Organization has attempted to wrap up for almost 9 years. And yet conditions have seldom been more favourable for the WTO, with the vast majority of the member states claiming earlier this year that it was the ideal remedy for the global recession. Unfortunately, the dial has barely moved in the past 12 months. If we can’t get a multilateral trade agreement, we must invest in bilateral trade.

Canada has had a few recent successes in this regard (Colombia, Panama, Peru) and has been negotiating the parameters of a free trade agreement with the European Union for over a year. It would indeed be cause for celebration if Canada were to announce the start of similar talks with India, Brazil or China. After all, a contract obtained in São Paulo or Mumbai necessarily creates or maintains jobs in Canada.

Over and above economic gains generated from improved relations with emerging nations, Canada would undoubtedly benefit from having recruited new allies when the inevitable transformation of the G8 occurs. Thus, the government cannot afford to leave any doubt as to its mission and give relations with emerging nations all the importance they deserve.