David Emerson's decision not to run for re-election has netted a fair share of disappointment that the Conservatives are losing not only their strongest internationally-minded minister, but also the government's point-man on relations with China and India.
Now, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to appoint new ministers for trade and foreign affairs—both of which Mr. Emerson held—experts are hoping the Liberal-turned-Conservative minister rubbed off on his fellow Cabinet colleagues.
In the late 1950s, prime minister John Diefenbaker established trade between Canada and China when he approved selling wheat to the Communist state on credit. From there grew a relationship that was fostered by the likes of Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien.
But when Mr. Harper came to power in 2006 he brought with him a new diplomatic attitude which experts say was likely influenced by the thinking of such confidantes as Jason Kenney and Stockwell Day, both of whom are extremely critical of Chinese policies.
Upon taking power, Mr. Harper was publicly critical of China's human rights record and the state of democracy in the Middle Kingdom, insisting his government would continue to stand for such principles as democracy and the rule of law, and not appease the Asian Tiger for more trade.
Even as all this took shape however, international trade minister David Emerson was working hard to ensure that, politics aside, economic relations between Canada and China remained strong. He visited the country numerous times and actively worked to make it a foreign policy priority.
Deepak Obhrai, who has served as parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister since the Conservatives came to power, said Mr. Emerson "left a strong mark" on the government's foreign portfolio.
"Mr. Emerson was a very strong individual who felt relations with China and India were very important," he said. "As international trade minister he played a very key role. He believed that we needed to sign more free trade agreements and he provided strong guidance."
In 2007, emerging economies, particularly India and China, were identified as one of the Conservative government's three foreign policy priorities. More trade offices were planned for both, and more trade officials were sent to the region.
But for almost two years, there continued to be a disconnect, and the government's policy came to be known as "cool politics, warm economics." For example, even as Mr. Emerson was travelling across the Pacific, Mr. Harper was meeting with the Dalai Lama and refusing to travel to China. Such actions prompted repeated outcries from the private sector, which alleged Canadian trade interests were being hurt despite Mr. Emerson's efforts.
Yet by the time Mr. Emerson was named foreign affairs minister in the aftermath of Maxime Bernier's spectacular fall, a number of changes had been noticed. The government had stepped back from its strong public criticisms of China, an example being Mr. Harper's decision to call for the Chinese government to "show restraint" in dealing with protests in Tibet in March, rather than publicly blasting it.
In fact, during the recent election campaign, Mr. Harper said he planned to visit China in the future, though he offered no timeframe for such a trip.
Paul Evans, a professor at University of British Columbia's Liu Institute and a former co-CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation, said he was delighted by the prime minister's interest in going to China.
Mr. Evans said he is anticipating a substantial policy on Asia from the government in the near future, and he hoped Mr. Emerson's ability to see international relations in a "big picture" scenario, and his "voice of constructive moderation" on the foreign affairs file, will be remembered.
Though Mr. Emerson held the foreign affairs portfolio for a relatively short time, former foreign affairs deputy minister Peter Harder, now director of the Canada China Business Council, believes Mr. Emerson helped to enrich the views of the government and that this has contributed to the "maturation of foreign policy."
To that end, he is confident Mr. Emerson's approach will be mimicked by a Conservative government that now realizes the importance of China to Canada.
"I think that experience and personal contact and a broad base of input to the relationship will take place, and I think that should be welcomed," he said of what he expects over the next year.
"I do know from knowing Mr. Emerson that he believed in a relationship that was engaged and direct and plainly spoke to the Chinese about our differences. But [he] also acknowledged that we have more in common and that our interests are better served through strong engagement, and that's an approach he brought to the trade industry and foreign affairs files."
Gregory Chin, a professor at York University and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, believed Mr. Emerson to be such an asset to the Conservatives that he suggested Mr. Harper keep him around as a special adviser on China.
"[This] would send a positive, constructive signal to Beijing. His appointment would be a useful confidence, trust-building measure," Mr. Chin said.
But Mr. Emerson's approach may have been too close to the Liberal Party's policy of "quiet diplomacy" on Chinese social issues, said Brock University Professor Charles Burton, likely leaving Mr. Harper wanting new trade and foreign ministers who will better promote the Conservatives' views.
Mr. Burton said Mr. Harper will likely also make the next Canadian ambassador to China a political appointee. By doing so, he will be sure to have someone who better carries the Conservative's message, which is often at odds with the more Liberal-oriented one long carried by the foreign service.
Meanwhile, Mr. Burton said the Chinese are likely coming to terms with Mr. Harper's style now that he has been elected for a second time.
Mr. Obhrai, who has worked closely on steering Canada's political relations with India, rejected the notion that relations with China are strained. He said the Conservatives plan to continue along the same path as before.
"Prime Minister Harper has made it very clear that human rights remains a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy, it's not to single out China," Mr. Obhrai said. "We will continue with the policy we had and engage on many issues and human rights, I don't think it's 'hard line' it's just Canada's values and point of view."
Courting India's Good Favour
Where Canada's values are better reflected is in India, Mr. Obhrai said, noting that under Jean Chrétien's Liberal government relations with the South Asian country were low.
"India is the number-one emerging market. India is becoming a very powerful player in Asia and it's natural that our relationship with India, we would focus on that relationship," Mr. Obhrai said. He said improving relations with India are coming at the cost of those with China.
Most recently, Canada's support for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna is being considered a turning point in bilateral relations, said Kam Rathee, past president of the Canada-India Business Council.
"I think Mr. Harper is a very intelligent person, he knows that India relations need to be kept in focus," Mr. Rathee said.
To appease both camps, he said, striking a balance between relations with China and India—something the cool-headed and pragmatic Mr. Emerson was seen to have done well—will be important, especially as some push for a return to the Liberal-era of China-centred politics.
"It would be a huge mistake to make China the center of the Asia policy," said Ashok Kapur, a professor at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow with Canada India Foundation. "You see the world is becoming multi-polar. So in this case to make China the centre [of foreign policy], the Chinese would be very happy, but China's neighbours are very suspicious of China's future intentions with its massive military organization."
Mr. Kapur said he belives Mr. Emerson to be a savvy politician who played an important role in the turning of Canada-India relations, while taking a very balanced approach.
"I think it's a loss. Not to have [Mr. Emerson] there, so I hope the government will use him in an import way because that man has a lot of talent," Mr. Kapur said. "He's a huge asset not only to the Conservatives, but to Canada, and that's what Canada needs."