There’s always a back-to-school buzz around Ottawa at this time of year. MPs return from a summer of pancake breakfasts and corns roasts in their ridings and take their desks in Parliament.

When Parliament resumes on September 17, there will be no shortage of issues for MPs scrap about in the school yard. But the most important of the lot should be the increasingly heated issue of foreign ownership of Canada’s natural resources.

This is one that’s not just about scoring short-term political points against opponents, it cuts to a fundamental question about who we are and where we are going as a country.

The crucible for this debate is the proposed $15.1 billion takeover offer for Calgary-based Nexen by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. The required regulatory review of the deal – which is expected to take about 45 days - is already underway within Industry Canada and the federal Competition Bureau.

The New Democrats are demanding that the Harper government be transparent about the criteria it will use to decide whether the controversial deal get the green light. As it stands, if the advocates can successfully argue that a transaction is of “net benefit” to Canada, it’s a go. (Unless it’s a $40-billion potash acquisition by BHP Billiton that has the Premier of Saskatchewan squealing with dismay.)

What’s never been explicit is what “net benefit” actually means. And given China’s voracious appetite – and deep pockets - for natural resources, it’s a conversation we all really need to have.

It’s important not only for those who want to block the erosion of our control over the heart of our economic prosperity. Clarity is equally important to foreign investors, because it provides the assurance that there is a meaningful rules-based approach in place that will provide their capital with a stable environment.

After all, if there’s one thing money adores, it’s a transparent, rules-based, process-driven place to hang out — especially in these turbulent times.

The fate of CNOOC’s bid for Nexen is further complicated by a recent public shift in federal trade policy.

After a long period of coming as close to snubbing China as possible, the Conservative government began openly flirting with the People’s Republic earlier this year. The protracted economic downturn in the U.S. – and a snit over the Obama Administration’s rejection of a proposed pipeline to carry oil from northern Alberta to U.S. markets – led to several pronouncements about the need to aggressively diversify Canada’s trade relationships.

    The most obvious attempt at economic re-orientation from north/south to west/east came with the attachment of a priority baggage tag for the construction of the $5.5-billion Northern gateway pipeline from northern Alberta to the coast of B.C. That would mean that instead of flowing to the U.S. (where demand is softer and recent discoveries have increased domestic supply and lowered the price of oil), Canadian crude would be shipped to the world’s largest energy consumer: China.

    According to people who claim to know about these things, the cooing noises from Ottawa have had the desired result of attracting attention – and capital – from China. The message that Canada is open for business has been received.

    That’s not a bad thing by any means. The reality is that there’s no way Canada or Canadians can lay their hands on the amount of capital required to develop a resource as massive and as complex as the oil sands. And in order to lay our hands on the cash to get the job done, it’s reasonable to expect some trade-offs in areas like control.

    Even so, we have to do a better job of framing those investments, articulating exactly what we need from a transaction and ensuring we get it.

    An important step in that process is having a really good sense of our partners. Just as we deliver transparency to them – and to their money – we need to ensure that they reciprocate.

    And that brings us back to the subject of China.

    At some point this fall (probably around mid-October – details are sketchy) the 18th Party Congress will be held, formally designating a supreme leader for the next 10 years.

    The man who’s been widely expected to ascend to that crucial role is Xi Jinping. The Chinese government is anything but random about its political process, so if we’ve heard of this guy, it’s no accident.

    But that’s where things get weird. Since he gave a speech on September 1, no one has seen or heard from Mr. Xi. He’s cancelled meetings (including one with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). There’s been no explanation. No acknowledgement. No comment.

    See, that’s the kind of thing that makes you think twice about your partners in a strategic, long-term economic development. It underscores the fact that we’re getting into bed with folks – and a system - we neither know not understand.

    That’s certainly a reality worth considering as the “net benefit” equation is being calculated.