In a surprisingly undiplomatic rebuke, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was publicly chided at a traditional welcoming ceremony Thursday for taking too long to visit China.
The gentle but pointed rebuke came as the prime minister and his Chinese counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao, sat at a large oval table to begin talks following a military welcome at the cavernous Great Hall of the People.
With television cameras rolling, Jiabao noted that he and the prime minister had yet to meet and that no Canadian prime minister had visited China in five years.
He also reminded Harper that Chinese media was full of stories about the lack of attention paid to China by his government since being elected in 2006.
“Five years is too long a time … and that’s why there were comments in the media that your visit should have taken place earlier,” the premier said through an interpreter.
An hour earlier, Chinese President Hu Jintao had twice emphasized that this was Harper’s first visit at their private meeting.
However, the prime minister did not let the comments slip by without a response. He pointed out that it had also been five years since the Chinese leadership had stepped foot in Canada.
The gentle prods seemed to confirm Chinese media reports in advance of the trip that the relationship had turned icy since Harper’s election in 2006.
But all three leaders spoke of the mutually desirable goal of taking the relationship into a new direction, with Harper inviting the leaders to Canada.
Regardless of the state of the relationship, the prime minister is not leaving China empty handed, having one a few minor concessions from the hosts.
The biggest plum came during the Harper-Wen talks when China notified Canada that it is granting “approved destination status,” something the Canadian tourism industry has long requested.
Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said the agreement came at the last moment and that officials did not know until it came that such a deal was in the offing.
A few minutes earlier, ministers from the two countries had signed four memoranda of understanding pledging co-operation on climate control and scientific and technical assistance.
Two days earlier, Canada dropped its ban on imports of Canadian pork, a trade valued at about $50 million.
The approved destination status gives Canadian tourism a boost by permitting Chinese tourism agents to market Canada as a vacation spot.