BEIJING, China - The conclusion of 18 years of talks with the Chinese for an investment protection deal marks a historic step forward in Canada-China relations, the prime minister said Wednesday.
At the end of his first full day in China, Stephen Harper held up the foreign investment promotion and protection deal as the result of legwork to repair a bruised relationship between the two countries.
"My sense is the willingness of the Chinese to conclude this agreement indicates to me that they do put increasing strategic importance on two-way investment between our countries," he told reporters.
A foreign investment promotion and protection deal, or FIPA, gives foreign investors assurances they'll be treated the same as domestic companies and allows for arbitration at an international tribunal-type body in disputes.
Details of the agreement were not released. It still has to undergo legal review by both countries and be ratified before it can come into force. In Canada, that will include debate in the House of Commons.
The deal was one of several signed on Harper's first full day of a three-city tour of China, his second visit since being elected prime minister.
His relationship with the Chinese leadership started off rocky, with Harper taking an aggressive stand on human rights that irked the Chinese.
But his first visit in 2009 turned a page, said Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the start of a bilateral meeting with Harper on Wednesday afternoon.
He said he hoped this visit could elevate the relationship further.
"At present, the international situation is undergoing profound and complex changes," Wen said, through a translator.
"Strengthening communication and co-operation is our shared aspiration and also serves the fundamental interests of our two countries."
While Harper sat down with Wen to talk economics, at least half the meeting was spent on other topics.
Harper did raise concerns about China's decision to veto a UN Security Council resolution that would have applied greater pressure on Syria in the wake of increased violence in that country.
"I raised, in very clear and strong terms, Canada's position on this issue," Harper told reporters.
"We would hope to see in the future action from the Security Council."
The media, both Chinese and Canadian, had been escorted out of the open portion of the talks just as Harper was about to indicate his intent to raise human rights issues.
Officials said Harper also raised the case of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen serving a life sentence for speaking out on behalf of China's Uighur minority, restating the government's desire to have consular access to him.
Other consular issues were discussed, officials said, but they declined to provide details.
Harper told reporters that Wednesday's talks were an example that it was possible to talk both economics and rights with the Chinese.
"My view has always been that as long as you're frank and respectful, it is in fact necessary to engage China as we would engage every other country on the entire range of issues," he said.
"I think the Chinese have gotten more comfortable with that position as we've gone forward and I think we are beginning to achieve things."
In addition to FIPA, several other deals were reached with the Chinese in the areas of energy, natural resources, education, science and technology, and agriculture.
Harper began his three-city tour of China with a little piece of home.
The mascot for the Calgary Stampede tried to teach a cluster of Chinese youth clad in white cowboy hats the traditional greeting of the summer festival.
They couldn't quite muster the "yahoo," but Harper's message was that Canada is more than ready to welcome the Chinese with their official greeting of nihao.
He helped launch a new tourism campaign for Canada at the China Youth Services Travel bureau, one of several national agencies now allowed to market Canada as an official tourist destination since Beijing gave Canada Approved Destination Status in 2009.
Since then, tourism to Canada has increased by 25 per cent.
"It is one of the few industries in the world whose raw material is goodwill and whose finished product is friendship," Harper said Wednesday in speech to a crowd that was a mix of Chinese officials and the Canadian delegation.
"And I think the world needs all the friendship and goodwill it can get."
The head of CYTS said the Chinese are already impressed with Canada's landscape and citizens.
"Travel is the best way to build bridges between people and countries," said Zhang Li Jun, through a translator.
Strolling out of Beijing's Temple of Heaven complex after a tour earlier Wednesday, Harper remarked on the magnificence of the buildings.
Centuries ago, they were used by emperors to pray for good harvests.
And it's fitting metaphor for the prime minister's overall goal on this trip: harvesting more of China's wealth via its tourism, business and education sectors.
In an editorial, a Chinese state newspaper said Harper's visit comes at an important moment in bilateral relations.
But in order to develop them, both sides need to treat each other with respect and appropriately handle sensitive issues, the China Daily said.
"It is hoped the two countries can make their relationship a model for relations between countries of different social systems and modes of development."