Stephen Harper says his just-concluded official visit to China proves you can do lots of business with Beijing without leaving human-rights concerns at home.
Speaking to reporters Sunday after his first lengthy sit-down with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr. Harper made a point of noting he raised a comprehensive list of human-rights concerns with Beijing during weekend meetings. Mr. Xi is the singular political force in the country and has amassed a great deal of power since taking over China's leadership two years ago.
"I am not going to enumerate them all but I will say you can rest assured that every single item that is important in the area of consular issues, human rights, governance, the rights of minorities – I have raised every single one of those," Mr. Harper told reporters.
The Prime Minister departed with a major bilateral irritant unresolved: a staggering imbalance in Canada's trading relationship with Beijing.
And a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, remain in Chinese custody, accused of being spies, despite Mr. Harper's efforts on their behalf.
Still, Mr. Harper argued Sunday he's been able to improve the China-Canada relationship on his own terms, even in the face of criticism that he was being too moralistic or presumptuous about airing concerns with the Asian power, which has economic might and population that dwarf Canada's.
"We obviously want to have a good relationship, but it has to be a good relationship that serves this country's interests," Mr. Harper said. "And so, for that reason, I raise issues where there are some significant difficulties between our governments."
He also said the trip was a commercial success, pointing to $2.5-billion in business deals signed during his visit, and Beijing's decision to grant a valuable Chinese currency trading hub to Canada. Almost $1-billion in deals were signed during Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's recent trip to China.
The lopsided trading relationship between Canada and China was a major theme of Mr. Harper's visit – Canadian firms struggle to make headway in China, and 70 per cent of the two-way commerce is Chinese exports to Canada – and his repeated public statements drew sympathetic, and at times defensive comments from Chinese leaders, if little else.
At one point he was asked whether he'd managed to mend fences with China after two years of strained ties. Mr. Harper replied it was worth noting he didn't hear a single complaint on what once was a major disruption to the relationship – Canada's decision to bar Chinese state-owned firms from further investment in the oil sands.
And the Prime Minister held up China's silence on Canada's new foreign-investment policy – even behind closed doors – as evidence the bilateral relationship is on the mend after a string of missteps. "I have to tell you that the Chinese leadership did not raise with me at any point the issue of Canadian investment rules," Mr. Harper noted.
He then added, bluntly, that China has no grounds to complain given how restrictive the Chinese market has proven to be for Canadian firms. "It would be difficult for [Beijing] to do so given that Canada's investment climate is so much freer than the investment climate here.
"According to our statistics, the Chinese have about five times the level of investment in Canada that we have in China. So if anything, it's on the other side that this issue really has to be addressed."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who met with Mr. Harper on Saturday, defended Beijing's role in this trade imbalance, saying China wants to buy more Canadian goods but, he pointedly added, he'd like Ottawa to ease export restrictions on technology – controls normally put in place for security reasons and unlikely to be lifted.
"I want to say that China has no intention to deliberately pursue a trade surplus. We are ready to buy marketable and competitive Canadian goods," Mr. Li said. "We hope that Canada will ease restrictions on high-tech exports to China."
Mr. Harper, whose policy toward China has alternated between engagement and keeping his distance, tried to make the case Sunday that he hasn't changed. He recalled the stir he caused in 2006, when after he was denied a face-to-face meeting with China's then-president Hu Jintao, he hinted it was because he wouldn't agree to restrict the conversation to trade and made his "almighty dollar" vow.
"You may remember there was some controversy in the early days of this government when we said when we conducted relationships with China or any other country there were really three elements to that – there were not just economic interests, there were also fundamental human values, Canadian values and also our security interests," Mr. Harper said.
"In all of those things, we insist that all of those things be on the table in this and any other relationship and that is the basis on which we have relationships."
The Prime Minister said these included the case of the Garratts, who were taken into custody this summer only days after Canada publicly blamed China for hacking federal government computers. Ottawa has been pressing Beijing to resolve the matter. "That particular case is of particular concern to Canadians," he said.
Mr. Harper will make a brief appearance at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit in Beijing Monday before flying home to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa. He originally cancelled his appearance at APEC, citing the need to be in Canada for Nov. 11, after the slayings of two Canadian soldiers, but he later arranged to show up briefly at the insistence of his Chinese hosts.
Later this week, he will fly to a meeting with leaders of the Group of 20 major economies in Brisbane. Mr. Harper will be able to meet with many of the leaders he'll miss seeing at APEC.
With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe