Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned China today not to threaten Canada on economic issues in the hope of getting his government to back off on human rights criticisms, including the case of Huseyin Celil.
Speaking with reporters in Halifax, Mr. Harper suggested China has more to lose if the economic relationship between the two countries becomes fractured.
"I would point out to any Chinese official that just as a matter of fact, China had a huge trade surplus with this country so it would be in the interest of the Chinese government to make sure any dealings on trade are fair and above board," he said.
Thursday, a senior Chinese official issued a sober warning to the Harper government over its criticism of his country's human-rights policies.
"The economic relationship goes hand in hand with the political relationship," He Yafei, the country's assistant minister of foreign affairs for North America told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
"We need to have a sound political basis of mutual trust for the economic relationship to flourish. That's why we need to work harder to improve mutual trust."
The remarks came as Canada continued to express deep concern over the fate of Mr. Celil, a dual Canadian-Chinese citizen, who is jailed in China.
Mr. Harper was speaking today at a ceremony to rename the Halifax airport for former Nova Scotia Premier Robert L. Stanfield. Mr. Harper won applause from the crowd when he said he makes no apologies for standing up for the rights of Canadians abroad, especially Mr. Celil.
On Thursday in Ottawa, Mr. He issued assurances that Mr. Celil will not be executed, and denied reports that Mr. Celil has been tortured. He added, however, that the Chinese government has no obligation to inform Canadian diplomats of Mr. Celil's next court date because the country does not recognize dual citizenships. Mr. Celil was in court last week accused of terrorist activities, but no Canadian diplomats were present.
Mr. Harper raised the Celil case in a recent meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao while the two leaders were in Vietnam for a meeting of APEC.
It was the latest in a series of irritants that has included a decision by Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney to meet with the Dalai Lama, accusations that China is spying on Canadian corporations and a delay in talks on a strategic partnership the two countries signed two years ago.
In the interview with The Globe and Mail and CTV, Mr. He said that, although he believes the difficulties are temporary, there are clouds on the horizon.
"I cannot say Canada is squandering [the relationship]now, but in practical terms Canada is lagging behind in its relations with China," he said.
"Trade is growing, but not fast enough. Investment is growing, but not fast enough. The overall relationship has room for improvement."
Without a strong political relationship, long-term investments might suffer, he said.
"People need to have confidence in the country they are going to do business with," he said.