There’s no single explanation for what’s going on in today’s China: the sustained rapid growth, the massive investment — public, private, foreign and domestic — a burgeoning middle class, environmental problems, dramatic urbanization, continued control by the single-party state, digital-age convenience for millions and abject poverty for millions of others.

Still, there is one simple fact no one should ignore: China has reemerged and will play a central role in shaping our world in the coming decades.

That is why Canada needs to take its relations with China much more seriously in order to safeguard our own long-term interests.

This is the overriding lesson I have taken from my recent meetings with President Hu Jintao in Ottawa, senior Chinese leaders in Beijing, Canadians active in business and cultural circles in China and Chinese Canadians at home.

No one is about to replace the United States as our principal economic partner. However, the global economy’s centre of gravity has already shifted toward Asia. A crucial role of political leaders is to prepare their country for the future. Today, you can’t do that without getting serious about long-term relations with China.

The Chinese leadership is prepared to engage very candidly with us, as I found. They take satisfaction in recent bilateral progress, but there is little doubt the relationship is scarcely back to where it was in 2005. Under the Harper government, Canada wasted precious time on posturing that was all about politics and not about results.

Canada’s interests require us to be much more ambitious and strategic about our relations with China. The Liberal Party has put forward ideas for that in our recently released foreign policy statement.

For example, we propose to negotiate a new kind of bilateral agreement with China and India. While boosting trade would be central, a “global network agreement” would go far beyond exports and imports. The new agreement would mandate greatly enhanced cooperation, exchanges and collaborative projects in key sectors such as higher education, clean technologies, culture, tourism, transportation, logistics and governance. But instead of an ad hoc and piecemeal approach, we would set coherent objectives across the whole relationship and establish specific mandates from the highest levels for action.

Success will mean going well beyond government-to-government contacts and leveraging relationships at all levels, including in the private sector, academia and civil society.

Chinese leaders reacted with openness to this concept of a shared strategic framework for advancing the networks over which people, knowledge, culture, commerce and investment flow between our two countries.

Our discussions also left me more convinced than ever that these human networks are the most promising avenue for supporting steady, gradual advancement of the rule of law and human rights in China.

Let’s be serious about this. Canadian politicians could hold press conferences on a daily basis to denounce the regime’s shortcomings and still not accomplish what one visiting legal expert can by training Chinese judges, for example. So let’s have more practical engagement, and less denouncing for the cameras.

I have practised my fair share of freedom of expression over the years. So naturally I had some fundamental differences with the Chinese leaders I met. I shared some of those. In particular, I talked about the inextricable link, in the Canadian experience, between democratic freedom and economic progress.

They listened respectfully. And they talked about the Chinese experience. It’s different — vastly different. We disagreed. But putting our differences on the table — differences in history, circumstances, philosophy — and seeking to understand them is essential to solid relations, and a crucial step toward common ground. Common ground is where we can work together to advance the well-being of people in both countries.

The key to the future really is our people-to-people connections. As the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada has pointed out, 20 percent of the world’s people of Chinese descent outside of China live in Canada. More than 300,000 Canadians are living and working in China today. This is a living relationship.

Ottawa must also work more closely with provincial governments, who have been filling a void in the Canadian presence abroad, ably. They need a more ambitious, more collaborative partner in the federal government.

If we get the leadership right, much is possible. In education, science, green technology, commerce and culture, events will unfold on a massive scale in China in the years ahead. Canadians have a lot to offer and a lot to gain. But we must move on from several years lost on ideological posturing

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