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Prime Minister Stephen Harper inspects the honour guard with Wen Jiabao, Premier of the Peolpe's Republic of China, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on Thursday, December 3, 2009.Sean Kilpatrick

In an unprecedented diplomatic breach, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publicly upbraided Prime Minister Stephen Harper today for failing to visit China sooner.

"This is your first visit to China and this is the first meeting between the Chinese premier and a Canadian prime minister in almost five years," Mr. Wen told Mr. Harper through an interpreter.

Mr. Harper listened, stone-faced, in front of Canadian, Chinese and international media.

"Five years is too long a time for China-Canada relations and that's why there are comments in the media that your visit is one that should have taken place earlier."

Such a public scolding is unheard of in a meeting between heads of government.

"I agree with you Premier that five years is a long time," Mr. Harper said in response. "It's also been almost five years since we had yourself or President Hu in our country."

He went on to invite the Premier or President Hu Jintao to visit Canada "in the not too distant future."

It was the first meeting between the two first ministers, though Mr. Harper and President Hu spoke with each other as recently as the Asia-Pacific leaders' summit a fortnight ago. Mr. Wen is regarded as a highly capable, powerful and popular leader within China, although President Hu is its most senior statesman.

Mr. Wen's comments reflected similar criticism in recent days by China's state-controlled or state-approved newspapers, which took Mr. Harper to task for neglecting a China-Canada relationship that extended back almost four decades.

Within minutes of the meeting's conclusions, the Canadian government released a flurry of announcements on Sino-Canadian co-operation in the areas of tourism, climate change, culture and other fields.

In sum, the agreement represents a significant breakthrough in relations between the two countries. But Mr. Wen was clearly not willing to let the occasion pass without expressing his displeasure at the Conservative government's previously chilly approach to the Middle Kingdom.

When asked later by reporters about Premier Wen'scomment that he had taken too long to visit, the Prime Minister said: "My view is the same. I also would welcome to see Chinese leaders come to Canada more frequently and I think on both sides more regular visits would make sense."

Mr. Harper and his ministers made a point in the first years of his government to promote the cause of human rights in China and the rights of Tibet and Taiwan to self determination, arguing that Canadians were not prepared to sacrifice democratic principles when talking to China, and that such conversations would not inhibit trade.

This visit reflects the Prime Minister's evolution toward an approach that focuses on exploiting the potential of exporting resources, wares and financial services to the country that has emerged as Canada's second largest trading partner.

The joint statement of the two countries reflects Chinese willingness to engage in that approach. "I'm willing to have an in-depth exchange of views with you on China-Canada relations," Mr. Wen affirmed.

But not before the Premier took the Prime Minister to the woodshed.

Meanwhile, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae and NDP Leader Jack Layton offered harsh in their reaction today to the unprecedented rebuke.

"Mr. Harper's provocative refusal to engage with China for four years comes with a price, which Canada is paying for, and which this incident reflects" Mr. Rae told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail this morning. He said the Chinese Premier's comment "is indeed unprecedented and deliberate, but then so was Harper's truly ignorant behaviour."

Mr. Layton, meanwhile, told The Globe that the "public rebuke shows that there's work to do on Canada's part."

"The new tourist designation and the consulate in Montreal are an important gesture by the Chinese, now it's our turn," he says. "Canada needs to stop turning down so many Chinese tourist visas with a revamped transparent visa process that is fast, efficient, and fair."

With a file from Jane Taber in Ottawa

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