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A student keeps his eyes wide during a visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the Canadian International School in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2009.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada's new Foreign Affairs Minister is making it clear that the Conservative government will continue to press China on human rights, but says that shouldn't stop the countries from taking their economic relationship to the next level.

In his first public comments about China since assuming his role in May, John Baird said that the government will continue to have "frank yet respectful" discussions with Beijing about the importance of human rights standards, in pursuit of a principled foreign policy approach.

Yet he took pains to emphasize that he understands the Canadian business community's desire for a better relationship with China, and how vital that country is to the Canadian economy.

"China is incredibly important to our future prosperity," Mr. Baird told a business audience in Toronto on Wednesday, straying from his prepared speaking notes. "My government gets it and as Canada's new minister of foreign affairs, I get it."

Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta's China Institute, called the speech an important step for a government that has been criticized for its failure to develop a coherent and consistent China policy.

"This is very strong stuff when the Foreign Affairs Minister says, 'I get it.' It is important because in the past, the government did not get it," Mr. Jiang said.

The Harper government's relationship with China got off to a rocky start when the Conservatives first came to power and took China to task over its human rights record. The strain was at its worst in 2009 when the Prime Minister made his first official visit to Beijing and received a diplomatic dressing down from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for waiting so long.

Mr. Baird went to extreme lengths on Wednesday to signal that he wants to improve the relationship, even as Ottawa continues to make its case to China on issues such as the treatment of political dissidents and religious minorities.

"Even the best of friends can have legitimate differences of opinion, and need to work together to resolve them," he said, adding that visiting China is a "huge" priority for him and he intends to go as soon as possible. The Prime Minister intends to make a second trip, Mr. Baird said.

"Our relationship with China will now be more critical and crucial than ever," Mr. Baird said. "Are things perfect? No. Are there things that we can do better? Absolutely."

Mr. Baird characterized Canada's relationship with China as having reached a "high water mark."

"Not everyone would agree this is a high water mark in the Canada-China relationship. That is a bit fatuous," said Paul Evans, director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.

Mr. Evans said Mr. Baird's remarks, while focusing almost entirely on bilateral trade with China, were more significant for what they failed to mention, including security issues, maritime border disputes in the South China Sea, and North Korea.

"This is a very narrow gauge as to what the China relationship is about....This is a speech that does not deal with strategic concepts," he said.

Business leaders, however, applauded Mr. Baird's pledge that Canada is open to Chinese investment.

Don Guloien, chief executive officer of insurance company Manulife Financial Corp., said Mr. Baird is taking a "pragmatic approach."

"The warmth that he conveyed, the commitment to the China-Canada relationship, was very strong and obvious," Mr. Guloien said.

Mr. Baird suggested to reporters that the minority government situation that persisted until May made it more difficult to improve relations with China.

He said that he and Ed Fast, the new Minister of International Trade, will do all they can to encourage trade and investment between the countries. "Canada is emerging as a destination of choice for Chinese investment and Chinese investors and we welcome that," Mr. Baird said.

However, he offered no specifics on what limitations or ownership restrictions China might face when attempting to invest in Canadian assets.

"There is a hint that investment will be welcome but it is quite vague," Mr. Evans said.