OTTAWA – The Chinese ambassador to Canada downplayed some of the perceived risk around the proposed $1.5-billion takeover of Aecon Group Inc. Tuesday, saying takeovers by Chinese state-owned enterprises should be treated equally to those by other foreign firms.
“I think the Canadian media and the Canadian public is too sensitive about the Aecon cases,” said China’s Ambassador Lu Shaye. “It’s just a construction company.”
In a wide-ranging interview with media in Ottawa, Shaye spoke to the proposed takeover of the Canadian construction firm, as well as the status of free-trade discussions between Canada and China. The Aecon comments come as part of a longstanding belief by Chinese officials who view Canada’s distrust of Chinese direct investment as misguided and unfair.
“We just hope the Canadian side could adopt the same standard for Chinese companies compared with other foreign companies,” he said.
His comments come as Investment Canada reviews the proposed takeover of Aecon by the financial holding arm of China Communications Construction Co. Ltd. (CCCC), one of the largest construction companies in the world. The Liberal government has faced intense pressure to reject the transaction on the grounds that it would provide China access to sensitive intellectual property and other assets.
Some Chinese officials, as well as Aecon CEO John Beck, have pushed back against those claims, saying the company’s operations involve only simple construction and refurbishment contracts. European, U.S., South Korean and other companies have also flooded into the Canadian market in recent years, they say.
Investment Canada has not specified when a decision on the Aecon transaction will be released. Late last month, Aecon moved back the “outside date” on the acquisition to July 13, the final deadline for the deal.
Shaye said on Tuesday that China would accept any decision on the proposed takeover, but if rejected the country would also ask for specific reasons as to why the decision was made.
Experts have speculated whether Aecon would have to shed some of its more sensitive assets before the takeover or whether, after the transaction, it would be barred from bidding on certain Canadian projects.
However, according to an internal government document obtained by the Canadian Press on Tuesday, it appears the federal government does not expect the deal would restrict the construction firm’s ability to bid on local developments.
“It is not anticipated that the change of ownership of Aecon will affect its ability to bid on Canadian infrastructure projects,” said the document, written by Infrastructure Canada officials.
Shaye on Tuesday also commented on free-trade discussions between Canada and China, which have yet to officially begin despite attempts by Ottawa to enter negotiations.
Repeating statements made by other Chinese officials, Shaye also pushed back against Ottawa’s insistence late last year to include labour, gender or environmental stipulations in the talks, which caused early-stage negotiations to sour late last year.
“You can implement it in your domestic affairs or other international affairs,” he said. “But we just want to emphasize that we don’t want such ideas being implemented among the negotiations between Canada and China.”
Free-trade talks failed to officially begin late last year after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempted to introduce his “progressive” trade platform during a trip to Beijing.
Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada came close to launching trade talks with China in 2012, when the country was led by Hu Jintao.
The ambassador’s comments come after Guy Saint-Jacques, the former Canadian envoy in China from 2012 to 2016, said in an interview with the Globe and Mail Monday that the window to open trade talks with China is closing. Saint-Jacques suggested a federal election in 2019 would threaten to complicate trade discussions if they are not already well established, dampening Canada’s ability to work through negotiations.