HONOLULU â€” Prime Minister Stephen Harper scored a key bilateral meeting with China on Saturday and some mild praise from Chinese President Hu Jintao for Canada’s commitment to sewing stronger ties between the two countries.
In a day of four bilateral talks with leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Honolulu, president Hu was undoubtedly the biggest for Harper, both diplomatically and economically.
China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner, next only to the United States, and a key customer for Canadian natural resources and agricultural products.
Harper’s meeting with Hu was the last of the day, and followed private face time with the leaders of Chile, Peru and Indonesia. The prime minister is slated to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday after the APEC talks conclude.
The Canadian and Chinese leaders met for 30 minutes Saturday at a Honolulu hotel before heading to an official APEC dinner and cultural performance hosted by Obama.
“It is my great pleasure to have this opportunity to meet you again Mr. Prime Minister in Hawaii. First of all, let me congratulate you on your re-election as prime minister of Canada,” Hu said through a translator.
“Mr. Prime Minister, you have repeatedly stated that you attach importance to our relationship and that you hope to forge an even closer relationship with China. I appreciate that position.”
Harper and Hu sat in the middle of a large rectangular table, flanked by officials as well as Canadian and Chinese flags. The prime minister trumpeted the growing importance of the China-Canada relationship and stronger ties between the two countries.
“This is a very important relation to us. We’ve had, continue to have, a series of productive bilateral ministerial visits between our two countries and we have growing trade, investment and of course even greater economic potential,” Harper responded.
“And I look forward to discussing the range of our relations, including the great challenges we face, some of which we discussed at the G20. I look forward to discussing all of these issues with you.”
Hu invited Harper to visit China in 2012.
Saturday’s meeting was another step in the apparent warming of Canada-Sino relations, following a number of years of cool diplomacy when Harper first came to office.
The federal Conservative government (along with Parliament) angered China by awarding the Dalai Lama honorary Canadian citizenship in 2006, which erased some of the goodwill gained when Harper apologized for Canada’s infamous Chinese head tax.
The following year, relations plunged into a deeper chill, when Harper met the Tibetan spiritual leader in his office.
Harper, who has expressed his unhappiness with China’s human-rights record, waited nearly four years from taking office to make his first trip to the country.
When he visited Beijing two years ago, he was scolded by Premier Wen Jiabao, who said Harper waited “too long” to visit China.
But Harper and Hu have mended the relationship over the last two years, with the leaders travelling to each other’s capitals on official state visits.
Indeed, the Conservatives have made China a priority since coming to power in 2006, with roughly 40 ministerial visits to the country.
In 2010 alone, there were more than 25 high-level visits between the two countries, including president Hu’s state visit to Canada and the governor-general’s visit to China.
Bilateral trade with China has tripled since 2001, totalling nearly $58 billion last year. Canada has also been negotiating a foreign investment and protection agreement with China, which the government expects will increase two-way trade.
Earlier Saturday, Harper met with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and Indonesia’s Susilo Yudhoyono. Harper welcomed the invitation of the Indonesian president to visit the country.
Harper and the Peruvian president announced Canada will provide nearly $5 million over four years to the Conflict Management and Prevention in the Extractive Sector project.
The initiative, to be implemented by the United Nations Development Program, is designed to help in conflict resolution in the energy and mining sectors in Peru.
Cash will go toward training more than 1,000 public officials in conflict management and prevention, and the creation of eight associated regional offices.
“Canada is committed to contributing to economic prosperity and sustainable development in the hemisphere,” Harper said in a statement.
“The project being announced today will accomplish both goals by improving conflict management capacity so that Peruvians can derive maximum benefit from sustainable development of their extractive sector.”