By SHAWN MCCARTHY
Ottawa, July 13 - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is resisting growing pressure to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer, but his Trade Minister Michael Fortier insisted Sunday that the Prime Minister's absence would have no lasting impact on bilateral relations.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae accused Mr. Harper Sunday of being locked in a Cold War mentality and undoing years of Canada-China rapprochement with no resulting benefit in advancing human rights.
In the aftermath of China's crackdown on Tibetan protesters, Mr. Harper said he would not attend the Games because he had conflicts on his schedule, a decision that was seen by China-watchers as a thinly-veiled message of disapproval.
At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was talking about boycotting the opening ceremonies, while U.S. President George W. Bush, facing pressure from Congress and human-rights advocates to stay away, had not indicated his decision.
Last week, Mr. Sarkozy did an about-face and announced he would attend the ceremonies, which the Chinese see as their coming-of-age moment on the world stage. Before meeting with leaders from the Group of Eight industrialized nations last week, Mr. Bush said he, too, would attend the extravaganza, adding that a boycott would be “an affront to the Chinese people.”
Mr. Harper, who has presided over a chilling of relations with China, will be joined in his absence by Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, although he insists he is not participating in a boycott.
PMO spokesman Kory Teneycke said Canada would be sending a high-level delegation to the Games, including the opening ceremonies. Mr. Fortier said Sunday that Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson will lead the delegation.
Mr. Rae has called on the Prime Minister to reverse course and attend the Games' opening ceremony, saying Canada will “pay a price” for the snub.
He said Canadian prime ministers since John Diefenbaker have taken a personal interest in China, and have espoused human rights even as they fostered growing commercial links.
“This is a relationship that has taken a long time to build and the Conservatives are blowing it,” Mr. Rae said in an interview Sunday. “I really don't think they understand that the lack of engagement by the Prime Minister has been, is being and will be interpreted as disinterest in the relationship.”
Mr. Rae said Mr. Harper seems to be suffering a “hangover” from the Cold War, when Conservative parliamentarians were courted by Taiwan and were staunch critics of Red China.
“I think it is ironic that Chiang Kai-shek's followers in Taiwan are quite prepared to seek a rapprochement with China, but Chiang Kai-shek's followers in the Conservative cabinet are not,” he said.
Mr. Fortier, who recently took over the trade portfolio, rejected the idea that the issue of Mr. Harper's attendance would affect political or commercial relations between Canada and the emerging economic superpower.
“To assume that because a person is there, that the trade and the relationship with that country will improve, and that because Mr. Harper won't be there, our relationship will [suffer], is very naïve,” Mr. Fortier told CTV's Question Period.
“I think our relationship with a country is far more complex than that. I like the foundations of what we have with China.”
Mr. Harper briefly discussed the Olympic Games during a 45-minute meeting met with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Group of Eight meeting, according to Canadian officials who attended the meeting.
Officials said Mr. Hu thanked Canada for its support of the Beijing games, while Mr. Harper noted that Canada would be hosting the next Olympic gathering, the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. The leaders also endorsed greater commercial ties between the two Pacific Rim countries, officials reported.