Stephen McNeil's six business trips to China as premier underlies how important he sees trade between Nova Scotia and that nation, but recent international tensions appear to have made him jittery.
Asked by a reporter Thursday about the possible impact of ongoing trade disputes between Canada, the U.S. and China, McNeil pointed first to Nova Scotia's chief export — seafood.
"It's always a concern," he said. "I mean there's been a huge market for us.
"We've gone from $100 million to over $600 million in seafood exports."
Chinese students crucial to universities
But almost in the same breath, he pointed to a worry shared by at least one university administrator, the potential impact those trade tensions could have on bringing Chinese students to Nova Scotia.
"Wanting to make sure (Chinese parents) continue to recognize to their sons and daughters that Nova Scotia is a leading-edge educational province in the country and we can provide their children with high-quality education," said McNeil.
Margaret Murphy, associate vice-president of external Affairs at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said the university hadn't changed its recruitment strategy, but it shared McNeil's concerns.
"This definitely has everyone's attention and we're mindful of it, yet at the same time we think that the best approach that we can take is [to] rely on those long-established relations and hope that they will see us through," she said.
Murphy said Saint Mary's has business relationships in China that go back to the 1980s.
Upwards of 600 Chinese students at Saint Mary's
About 30 per cent of the university's international student body is from China. According to Murphy, there are upwards of 600 Chinese students enrolled.
But there is plenty at stake for all of Nova Scotia's degree-granting institutions.
In 2017-18, according to figures provided by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, 3,453 Chinese students attended a Nova Scotia university. That's roughly 40 per cent of all 8,506 international students in Nova Scotia last year.
Seven of Nova Scotia's 10 universities, including Saint Mary's, had representatives on the province's last trade mission to China in November. Murphy said although it is early in the recruiting season the plan is to stay the course.
"We're very hopeful and confident that things will continue going forward, but we are mindful of the concerns," said Murphy. "But we take a long view.
"This is a relationship we've fostered for decades and that we're confident will continue."