IN THE NEWS ~ Nexen: Are we naive or visionary?

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Tim Harper, Toronto Star

Duplicates: HAMILTON SPECTATOR (FIRST), A19 TORONTO STAR (ONT), A8

   Barack Obama last week became the first United States president in 22

years to block a Chinese takeover of an American asset, citing national security

concerns.

   It was a private deal, a Chinese buyout of wind farms in northern Oregon,

too close, in the Democrat's view, to a U.S. military installation.

   It would be easy to blame election year politics as the driver behind the

decision.

   Obama has regularly been criticized by Republican Mitt Romney for being

"soft on China,'' a message that works well in rust belt swing states, where it

is easy to fuel resentment over China's trade and manufacturing policies and its

perceived currency manipulation.

   Four years ago, Democrats took aim at Canada in those same states but the

guns fell silent after voting day.

   But U.S. attitudes toward China run deep - some would say verging on

paranoia - and they may be moving across the 49th parallel as Stephen Harper

grapples with one of the toughest decisions during his time in office, the

proposed $15.1-billion Chinese takeover of Calgary-based Nexen.

   In Oregon it's the military base, but in telecommunications it is fears of

wiretapping and spying.

   The case of the Shenzhen-based telecom giant Huawei illuminates the

different attitudes in North America as the Nexen decision looms.

   In the U.S., Huawei has been repeatedly rebuffed because of espionage

concerns. In the past year, congressional opposition led to the death of

Huawei's bid for a division of Motorola and it withdrew a bid to supply

equipment to Sprint Nextel for the same reason. It was before a Congressional

committee last month, defending itself over unsubstantiated suspicions of

wiretapping and sabotage.

   In this country, its expanding reach is celebrated by Harper at a Beijing

signing ceremony, and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty toured its new Markham

headquarters.

   Are we being naive or progressive?

   New Democrats officially called for a rejection of the Nexen deal

Thursday, but in so doing, they turned their objections into gripes over process

rather than substance, taking a position they knew would immediately be branded

by some as a typical anti-trade, protectionist position.

   The party's natural resources critic, Peter Julian, cited state-owned

China National Offshore Oil Corporation's environmental record, human rights

concerns, fears of a "tidal wave" of similar takeovers and the lack of

transparency in the decision-making process of the Conservative government.

   A day earlier, the NDP lost a vote in the Commons which would have forced

the Conservatives to hold public hearings into the takeover bid.

   Julian acknowledged national security concerns, but conceded there are

more questions than answers. He referred to a previous statement from the

company in which it referred to itself as a "mobile national territory,'' hardly

the definition of a Crown corporation that would be familiar to Canadians.

   The party's industry critic, Hélène LeBlanc, was more forthright during

debate in the Commons.

   "Concerns over our country's national security should take greater

priority in the debate over ownership of our natural resources,'' she said.

   In Canada, national security concerns posed by foreign takeovers are left

to the industry minister and the cabinet to arbitrate.

   "In the United States, the law specifies that a committee must examine

foreign investments and immediately consider that national security may be at

risk when foreign investments touch on crucial sectors, such as infrastructure,

mining, transportation, energy and key industrial capabilities.'' LeBlanc said.

"Where American law is clear, Canadian law is vague.''

   But the U.S. process also provides lots of room for such decisions to end

up as the bone for partisan dogs. Obama has faced criticism for his wind farm

veto.

   "The decision ... will unfortunately be seen as yet another signal - this

time from the highest possible level - that the United States does not really

want Chinese investment,'' wrote Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on

Foreign Relations. "And for an economy still struggling to create jobs, that's

the wrong signal to send.''

   Senior members of Congress from both parties are now pushing Obama to

block the transfer of Nexen's offshore leases to CNOOC if the takeover is

approved here.

   The stakes are huge for Harper, the economic downside of a rejection

obvious.

   But when he factors in national security concerns, he better bet that the

tougher American view to Chinese investment is rooted in paranoia and

partisanship, not solid intelligence.

   Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. [email protected]

 

© 2012 Torstar Corporation