Who blinked in Canada-China relations?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this week his government had refused to accept the view that Canada could deal with China only on trade or rights, not both. It was a comment that left observers scratching their heads.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with China's national people's congress chairman Wu Bangguo at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It was about as close to an "I told you so" as you can get without using those words.

In China this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said of evolving Canada-China relations: "There was view when we took office that you either had to deal with the Chinese on economics or to deal with them on human rights and consular matters, but you couldn't do both.

"We refused to accept that view. We thought that was a view that was driven, frankly, out of a weak approach foreign policy."

It's a comment that left many observers scratching their heads.

Harper's the one who said in 2006, "I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values. They don't want us to sell out to the almighty dollar."

Also that year, Harper's government bestowed honourary Canadian citizenship to the Dalai Lama — much to the ire of Chinese officials.

In 2007, Harper became the first Canadian prime minister to formally meet Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. (Paul Martin held an informal meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2004.)

In 2008, Harper declined an invitation to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic games.

Tough stances for which this government made no apologies.

But then something changed.

In 2009, Harper avoided meeting with the Dalai Lama during his tour of Canada — and Harper's first invitation to China followed.

He was, of course, publicly chided by the Chinese leadership during that trip for "taking too long" to get around to visiting.

The Dalai Lama was again dodged in 2010 and 2011.

In 2010, President Hu Jintao visited Canada.

And now, Canada is getting pandas ...

Whereas Tibet has been sealed off to outside visitors as China clamps down on another revolt — one in which reports say as many as five people have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.

Harper acknowledged there has been a change in the relationship — but said it's from the Chinese side.

"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.

"I think the Chinese have gotten more comfortable with that position as we've gone forward."