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Stephen Harper and Hu Jintao: What a difference six years makeCHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

What a difference six years make.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's initiation into summit diplomacy came in 2006 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in Hanoi. There, he buttonholed Chinese President Hu Jintao over the detention of Husseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, and was given a cold shoulder and a brushoff. It took two years for Sino-Canadian relations to reach room temperature.

On the weekend, Mr. Harper met formally in what's likely to be a valedictory meeting with Mr. Hu on the margins of the APEC summit in Vladivostok. By now, the two are old friends, with Mr. Harper's having visited Mr. Hu twice in Beijing and Mr. Hu's having travelled to Canada for a state visit ahead of the G8/G20 meetings in 2010. Mr. Hu will be stepping down as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party later this year and as President early next year.

This time, Mr. Harper signed a key deal on investor protection with his Chinese counterpart. The Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement is likely to temper any criticism of China's growing footprint in the oil sands and Canada's resource and energy sector.

For good measure, Mr. Harper put China's leader on notice over issues of reciprocity in our bilateral trade and investment relationship but deftly stopped short of linking these to pending cabinet approval of China National Offshore Oil Corp.'s $15.1-billion takeover of Calgary-based oil and gas producer Nexen Inc. Mr. Hu knows how to take a hint.

Mr. Harper also raised human-rights concerns, as well as Canadian impatience with Iran's nuclear program and dismay over the slaughter in Syria. No cold shoulder this time, and no break in the smiles before the cameras. Canada and China are once and future strategic partners.

Our Prime Minister has learned to align our interests when he should, and speak directly and frankly when he must. Mr. Harper's performance at APEC is a telling benchmark of his emergence as a statesman and as an interlocutor for Canada's interests on the global stage. For this, he should be applauded.

Jeremy Paltiel is a professor of political science at Carleton University.