Stephen Harper says he's not interested in merely pleasing China and in cases where his government has discouraged Chinese investment in this country – an acquisition of BlackBerry, takeovers in the oil sands or the use of telecom giant Huawei's equipment in core networks – he's driven by the need to safeguard what's best for Canada.
He rejects the suggestion that Ottawa is sending conflicting signals to China, Canada's second-largest trading partner, by on the one hand signing investment agreements with Beijing and mounting trade missions and on the other blocking, or warding off, Chinese business interests in select cases.
"First of all, let's be clear what the government's objective is. These are not mixed signals, as you put it. They are carefully calibrated decisions with an objective in mind," Mr. Harper said in an end-of-year interview.
"Let me be absolutely clear: the objective is not to have the best possible relationship we can have with China in terms of getting along," he said.
"Our policy is not just to get along as well as possible. Our policy is to have the best relationship that is in Canadians' interests," the Prime Minister said.
Mr. Harper, who as Prime Minister has alternated between being a hawk on China who wouldn't sell out to "the almighty dollar" and a pragmatist calling for deeper economic ties, has struggled to find the right balance in this crucial trading relationship.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail this week at his Langevin Block office in Ottawa, Mr. Harper, dressed in a dark suit and occasionally resting one foot on a coffee table, spoke about his rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin at November's G20 meeting, his government's success at balancing Ottawa's books and stewarding Canada through tough economic times as well as the ethics record of the Tories since they took power. (Read a transcript of the full interview)
The Prime Minister said serious challenges exist in the Canada-China relationship that cannot be ignored.
On the one hand, China, a nation of 1.4 billion people, is now a major economic player that can exert a stabilizing role in world affairs. Canada can benefit as long as it asserts itself. "We have to go in eyes wide open, and we have to stand up for ourselves."
But Beijing's also a potential security threat to Canada. It was Ottawa last summer that fingered a Chinese state-sponsored agent for hacking into Canadian government computers.
"We know that on a level of values, democratic values, on a level of security threats and interests, there are some very real challenges in this relationship," Mr. Harper said.
"And those challenges cannot just be pretended away."
Mr. Harper, who made a brief visit to China in November, was asked about reported instances where Chinese companies have been rebuffed. In 2013, Ottawa told BlackBerry it would not accept a takeover by China's Lenovo because of national security concerns. In December 2012, Mr. Harper announced a ban on foreign state-owned firms buying oil sands companies, a measure aimed at China, and, in 2013, Ottawa sent signals publicly and privately that it did not want technology from Beijing-based Huawei, founded by a former People's Liberation Army member, to be used in the federal government's telecommunications and e-mail network or the core architecture used to carry government message traffic.
"Some of the things you've mentioned we're not pursuing because they are frankly not in Canada's interests," Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Harper said China's restrictions on Canadian investment still outweigh the limits Ottawa has placed on the Chinese.
He said he thinks the Chinese have come to appreciate Canada for asserting its national interest in recent years.
"I think far from being bewildered and seeing mixed signals [in] this, I think they get it fully and I think they respect us a lot more for standing up for ourselves in this relationship," the Prime Minister said.
Mr. Harper said Canada seeks a balanced relationship with China and said he thinks the experience of living beside a global behemoth like the United States has equipped Canadians to succeed.
"Our whole country's history is surviving and thriving as a unique country beside a giant. So if we can do it besides the United States, I think we can do it with China."
Mr. Harper, who'd spent months as the most vocal hawk among Group of Seven leaders on Russia's annexation of Crimea, said he really didn't have any choice on how to handle a chance encounter with Mr. Putin at the November 15 Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane.
He told Mr. Putin to "get out of Ukraine" -- comments that made headlines around the world.
"I am not sure what else it is I would have said," the Prime Minister recalled.
"What else am I supposed to say? 'How about those Capitals? How about those Leafs?'," Mr. Harper said.
"I mean, seriously. This is a move of enormous global destabilization," he said of Russia's seizure of Crimea and its role supplying pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine who are still fighting the Kiev government.
Mr. Harper, who is in his ninth year in office and seeking re-election in 2015, insists that his government will balance Ottawa's books and run a surplus next year despite falling oil prices. He touts new tax cuts and benefits of about $4.6-billion a year for families with children as the fruit of his government's labour and says he wants to remain as prime minister in order to preserve Canada's relatively strong economic position and reap the fruits of new trade deals signed under his watch.
"What we want to do is consolidate the gains we've made as a country over the past few years. You know: we were, a decade-plus ago, we were at best in the middle of the pack when global times were pretty good. Now, we've been through challenging times and we have come out of that leading the pack. And I believe the new approach we've taken has a lot to do with that," Mr. Harper said.
"I think it would be too risky in the short term to let that direction be changed and undo what we've done. I think we need a bit more time to make sure that the gains we're seeing in our economy are truly long-term and sustainable."
The Prime Minister played down a series of accumulated political scandals linked to Conservatives or Conservative appointees, saying this record of misdeeds or alleged wrongdoing is relatively thin given the Tories took office more than eight years ago. Former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro was found guilty of Elections Act breaches this year and has resigned. Former Tory staffer Michael Sona was also convicted in the Guelph robocalls scandal and one-time Prime Minister's Office adviser Bruce Carson will face a trial in 2015 on influence peddling charges, which remain unproven. Harper Senate appointee Mike Duffy will go to trial on fraud and breach of trust charges next spring.
"I am not trying to make excuses. We don't want these things to happen. But they are pretty small and they are almost all about individuals and about individuals doing things wrong. And in some cases, like the Carson example you mentioned, frankly [has] nothing to do with the government of Canada itself. We have put in place very strict rules. We have enforced those rules when there have been violations," the Prime Minister said.
He said the members of his government are not exercising power for personal gain.
"Canadians can be very sure, and I can be very sure, that I have a government of people who, whether you may agree with them or not, who are coming into office every day, particularly our ministers, and running their departments with the public interest in mind and not lining their pockets personally," Mr. Harper said.