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Interview: Wheat trade serves as "icebreaker" in Canada-China relations, witnesses recall

05-14-2010 08:42 BJT

by Xinhua writers Shi Li, Zhang Dacheng

OTTAWA, May 13 (Xinhua) -- Wheat trade played a unique role in Canada-China relations, as the two countries had already signed their first wheat trade agreement 10 years before the establishment of diplomatic ties, historical witnesses said.

While China and Canada are celebrating the 40th anniversary of their diplomatic relations this year, senior management members of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), the sole Canadian exporter selling wheat to the Chinese market, told Xinhua in an exclusive interview that the early wheat deals had served as an "icebreaker" in bilateral relations.

The wheat trade between China and Canada began in 1961, in the midst of China's Three Years of Natural Disasters, when the country had an urgent need to import grain, recalled Ward Weisensel, CWB's Chief Operating Officer. At that time, however, China faced trade embargoes from many Western nations, including the United States.

"We recognized at that time that China had a number of poor people, we really felt it was a right thing (to export wheat to China) from the humanitarian consideration. We also saw that China had strong potential to be a long-term business partner for Canada, " said Weisensel.

As the two parties had never worked together before, it took a long time for the first contract to be completed, recalled Weisensel. However, the business was done finally, and successfully got the approval of the purchase arrangement based on credit instead of on cash, which is required by the Chinese side, thanks to the support of then Minister of Agriculture Alvin Hamilton.

During the 1960s, CWB signed three long-term trade agreements with China. The deals helped establish Canada as one of China's largest suppliers of grain, laying the foundation for an enduring wheat trade relationship.

According to Shi Haiguang, Chief Representative and General Manager of Greater China Region of CWB Beijing Office, at the time when China and Canada wanted to establish diplomatic relations, the most familiar area for both sides was wheat trade, which was often an important topic in high-level negotiations between the two sides.

"Canada Wheat Board was a key driving force for that (the establishment of diplomatic ties) in 1970. Ten years of good experiments of wheat trade helped it to be done more smoothly," said Shi, noting that CWB enjoyed 100-percent share of the Chinese wheat import market in 1971.

He added: "In the past 50 years, wheat from the fields of Western Canada has been transporting to China year after year, even within the period of the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) ." According to CWB data, more than 120 million tons of Canadian wheat and barley combined have been exported to China since 1961.

As the Chinese standard of living improves, CWB's business in China has changed accordingly. Weisensel said: "Over a long period of time, we probably represented about 40 percent of the trade into China, which was by far the largest customer of Canadian wheat. Because recently China has produced a very large amount of crops, the trade has been low."

Weisensel also noted that Chinese customers are increasingly focused on quality. "We think that was positive for what we have to market in the marketplace. We now sell a lot more barley into the marketplace, with the increase of beer consumption in China," he said.

Now, CWB is participating in a unique branding initiative with China's Guchuan Food Company, supplying bags of high-end, Canadian- milled dumpling flour made from Canada Western Red Spring wheat.

Shi said: "We simply exported wheat to China in the past. Today, besides that, we also sell barley, carry on customer service, technical exchange, information exchange, and development cooperation on market, technique and product."

Weisensel believed Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to China last December will further promote trade opportunities in China. "Our plan is to continue to focus on the quality end of the Chinese marketplace both in terms of wheat and melting barley," he said.

Talking about the Canada-China relations, Weisensel said: "We think the relationship is very strong. We are very proud of that and our intention is to do everything we can to continue to grow that relationship to make it better than it was yesterday."

Editor:Jin Lin |Source: Xinhua

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