The House interview with Stephen Harper

Read a transcript of an interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and CBC's Susan Lunn Friday, in which the PM discussed the warming of relations between Canada and China, human rights and Syria.

The CBC's Susan Lunn sat down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper Friday as he neared the end of his trip to China, for an interview for CBC Radio's The House. Here is a transcript of their discussion. 

The House: I was on the trip to China with you in 2009 and the message, it seemed to be then from the Chinese was … why did it take you so long to get here? It seems to me the message this time is so much warmer. And I'm wondering what you learned about China between 2009 and this visit in 2012?

Harper: I actually thought we had a pretty good visit in 2009. We concluded the approved destination status on tourism, which was something the government has been trying to achieve for decades and had not got. We managed to open Chinese markets to a number of Canadian agricultural products that had been blocked. Obviously on this trip we've had some more advances in terms of the foreign investment promotion and protection agreement. Some of the talks we're going to have on deepening our relations. Look, we've taken a very different approach to relations with China, which is that we will not refuse to talk about our democratic values, human rights issues, particular difficult consular cases. I think it took the Chinese a little bit of time to adapt to that but my view has always been that this is a relationship that we have with the Chinese because it is in their interest as much as ours. And there's no reason why we should be shy about bringing to the table all the issues we want to talk about. It took a little bit of time to adjust to that but I think you'll see it's actually an approach that is paying some dividends in terms of actually bringing things forward.

The House: In terms of that approach, can you describe a little bit about how — I know earlier this week you had said it took them some time to get used to your approach. What is it about your approach that is different, do you think, and how has their response changed over the last couple of years?

Harper: I think our approach to China is generally similar to our approach to foreign policy. Which is that this government has an opinion and we speak up. And we don't care, quite frankly, that we get criticized from time to time. Our job is not to be praised by every foreign government, our job is to advance Canadian interests, whether that means getting praised or sometimes getting criticism. I believe very strongly that in this world you have to have values and you have to stand up for your interests and if you don't do those things you're not going to get anywhere. So we've taken a different approach. As I say, it was not an approach the Chinese were used to from Canada but I think it's an approach that is paying dividends for both of us.

The House: Human rights groups said before the trip began that Canada now has more influence because of the interest in our natural resources, that now is the time to raise human rights. Have you noticed a difference in the response since the interest in our natural resources, and could Canada affect world change on the ground?

Harper: It's funny this is always the argument against raising things as somehow this would jeopardize our trade. It won't jeopardize our trade exists because the Chinese has a real interest in our trade. That means we should take advantage of those situations. Obviously we are a guest in this country so we will raise these things respectfully. Look, I think the Chinese — it's a very different country, very different problems — but I think they are sensitive to some of the issues in these areas, they are certainly sensitive to some of the criticism they take from time to time. And I think they are sensitive to growing demands from their people that economic growth be accompanied by some social and political progress. Now, obviously that today that is a very slow progress. But if you look at China 30 years ago, remarkable progress has been made, so I basically remain optimistic. And as I talk to leaders here, particularly the next generation of leader, I think they have a good understanding that in the future progress is going to have to be more balanced.

The House: And how about in terms of their relations with other countries, in particular Syria. Can you influence them on that front? Did you ask them not to sell arms to Syria anymore?

Harper: Well, you know I say while I'm on the ground here, I don't get into details of our discussions. But obviously we have a pretty profound difference of opinion with the Chinese government on the Syrian question. I think people are watching and seeing what has happened since the Security Council's failure to act. My hope is that will cause Chinese and other governments to think twice about the course they're on. As you know, we believe strongly in Canada that the Assad regime has lost legitimacy and it's only a matter of time before things change in that country, so I think the Chinese and everybody would be well-advised to recognize those realities and try and positively shape the future there.

The House: During this trip you have talked about the mutual interest in oil that we have, that we want to find new markets and they want to buy from new markets. Is there a danger in getting too close in terms of that relationship and how far do you let them in to invest in Canada, particularly around the development of our natural resources?

Harper: Well I don't think we're at a risk point right now, right now we're selling 99 per cent of our energy to the United States. So we haven't penetrated the Asian markets very far and obviously that's a priority for the government even in terms of investment. I'm told people talk about the huge investment into the oilsands, it's less than 10 per cent today. Whenever we look at investment, particularly investment from countries like China where the investment tends to come from state-owned enterprise, we examine that investment to be sure that the investment is being done on a commercial basis. That the interest is ultimately in normal commercial transactions and that there's not broader objectives that might undermine Canadian security.

The House: Premier Wen Jiabao said in the China Daily newspaper this week that he would like a full out free trade agreement. Is this a direction that you are interested in going into? Could Canada one day see itself having a free trade agreement with China?

Harper: Well look, we've concluded the foreign investment promotion and protection agreement. This is the first major economy wide agreement between our two countries. We've committed to complete the joint complementary study this spring and that will lead us to discussions to examine the feasibility and some of the potentials of a free trade agreement. That's still many steps from actually reaching a free trade agreement. We're not under any illusion there would be some significant obstacles. But this government's agenda is to diversify our trade. We've got discussions going with the European Union, with India, we're trying to get full membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and we're also talking with some other key partners in Asia, like the Japanese and the South Koreans. So my view is we get as many irons in the fire as we can and we see how far we can take it. But there will be enormous opportunity in China if we could ever get to that stage but at the same time [we're] not under any illusions that there would be a significant number of economic and other questions that would have to be answered.

The House: The worldwide recession has come up many times in your talks this week and from what I see the situation is still very fluid especially in Europe what kind of influence is that having on your government as you're trying to prepare your budget, and in particular the cuts that might be coming? How much influence is that, having given that it seems the situation changes almost from day to day?

Harper: The influence it's having is that we're obviously watching the situation very carefully. We're operating in an environment of great uncertainty you nevertheless have to make some assumptions. The assumption behind the economic action plan that we had in place and that we ran on is that Canada will experience growth in the next few years, that growth will be slow but nevertheless some growth will continue as long as that's the situation. I think the general budgetary approach to the government is right, which is modest gradual deficit reduction. Some reduction in expenditure but, quite frankly, trying to do most of the reduction through gradually increasing revenue. If because of Europe or other factors we were to see a dramatic change we would obviously have to re-examine our plans. Our anticipation continues to be that this year we'll probably see a fairly steady path. But look I don't want to underestimate we are very concerned about developments in the world, we're very worried about them, at the same time what we're trying to do as a government, is start to think rather than how will we manage the next phase of the crisis. What are the things we can do, whether it's in terms of trade that we're doing here or regulatory reform or reform to some of our programs. What are the things we can do to ensure good growth over the longer term so that we become less vulnerable to some of the problems we see in other developed countries, particularly in Europe and the United States, that could affect us pretty directly.

The House: What are some of the ideas you're looking at?

Harper: As I said in my speech in Davos we're looking at a whole range of things from revamping our science and technology and innovation policies to get better results there, immigration policy, regulatory policy, we're really looking at a full range of federal government policies to see how we can get more growth and more growth orientation in the Canadian economy.

The House: Prime Minister Harper, thank you very much for joining us today.

Harper: Well, thank you so much for having me.