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Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes a toast with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday, December 3, 2009.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has added his voice to the criticism of Stephen Harper's delayed visit to China, saying the Prime Minister lost face with the Chinese and lost economic opportunities for Canada.

"This is amateur hour," Mr. Ignatieff told reporters outsider the House of Commons just before Question Period. "This is the most important relationship for the economic future of the country - the most important. And for four years this government put this relationship in the deep freeze."

Mr. Ignatieff's comments come as Canadians digest the unprecedented rebuke of the Prime Minister by Wen Jiabao. The Chinese Premier publicly criticized the Prime Minister for failing to visit China at all since he took office in 2006. "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," he said when he met with Mr. Harper in Beijing.

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The Prime Minister is on his first visit to the Middle Kingdom. The Liberal Leader suggested Mr. Harper showed up in China expecting a "royal welcome ... and the Chinese said 'wait a minute.'"

"He lost face today," Mr. Ignatieff said. "And in that culture losing face is very important and I do think it's cost Canada economic opportunity today."

Earlier, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae and NDP Leader Jack Layton were quick to heap scorn on the Prime Minister.

"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 email this morning. He added that the Chinese Premier's comment "is indeed unprecedented and deliberate, but then so was Harper's truly ignorant behaviour."

Mr. Rae, who has warned that relations with Beijing are suffering because of the Prime Minister's deliberate dithering, said "the immaturity and clumsiness of Harper's approach has set the relationship back years. Mr. Harper is playing in the big leagues now, and he's paying the price for ignoring every warning and advice he has received, and for the arrogant and cavalier approach he has taken to this critical relationship."

Mr. Layton, meanwhile, told The Globe this morning 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 said. "Canada needs to stop turning down so many Chinese tourist visas with a revamped transparent visa process that is fast, efficient, and fair."

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The NDP Leader added, too, that we need to "show we're serious about our human rights concerns in China by addressing our human rights problems with Afghan detainees."

Paul Dewar, the NDP's foreign affairs critic, also chimed in. "When it comes to China the Harper government has been missing in action," he said, "this has not only hurt our bilateral economic relations but also opportunities to dialogue with China on issues like Burma and Afghanistan.

"Constructive engagement with China is the best strategy. Sadly the Conservatives have practiced isolation until now which has been ineffectual on all fronts".

For Mr. Rae, the Prime Minister is merely "reaping what he has sown."

"This is about more than a bad headline," he says. "This is about Canada's national interest being sacrificed to Mr. Harper's ideology, inexperience, and petulance."

(Photo: Mr. Harper and Mr. Wen raise a glass today in Beijing. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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