Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a preliminary deal to help the Philippines buy more defence equipment from Canada Saturday. But it’s his comments on China that are causing the biggest stir.

Harper’s visit to Manila is the first by a Canadian prime minister in 15 years and he got the red carpet treatment upon his arrival. But in his efforts to boost trade with Asia, the Philippines is not a prime target; it’s China that’s the big prize.

Yet as Harper took reporters’ questions Saturday, he risked offending China’s new Communist leadership by warning there could be political problems ahead if economic freedom doesn't lead to more political freedom.

Commenting on the change of leadership in Beijing – in which both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are handing over the reins to a younger generation -- Harper suggested the shift in power wouldn’t mean any real change.

"I would say that at this point, our assessment is probably that it's more continuity than change, but one will be examining that carefully," Harper told reporters at the joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

"Of course, part of our engagement with China... involves the promotion of our basic values, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And I do believe as prosperity grows in countries, pressures and expectations on those matters among the populations inevitably increase."

The prime minister's comments may not sit well with the Chinese as Canada tries to deepen business ties. They also come as the federal government mulls whether to approve a Chinese state oil company’s bid for Nexen, a major Canadian petroleum producer that interested in our oilsands.

As for the Philippines’ plans for increased trade, Aquino, who took over two years ago, promised he's cleaning up the corruption and political uncertainty that hampered business in the past.

"We keep saying that the Philippines is open for business under new management," Aquino told reporters.

"And I think it's a recognition of the change of atmosphere in the Philippines that we are honoured by the presence of the Honourable Prime Minister and his delegation. We do see increased commercial trade ties between our countries. Things that hindered the development of those ties in the past, under new management, it will cease to exist."

The Philippines has seen a significant transformation with Aquino, who has led an aggressive anti-corruption campaign since he took office. He’s also tried to address internal security concerns by negotiating a pact with the country’s Muslim minority, which is seeking its own autonomous region.

With the Philippines now the biggest source of immigration to Canada, some in the Filipino-Canadian community had hoped Harper would address the labour issues faced by foreign temporary workers who come to work in Canada – especially caregivers.

Many of these workers are entirely dependent on sponsoring employers for their contracts, and there are growing concerns about labour abuses that go unreported.

Though Harper did not mention those issues in his remarks, Aquino said the subject was raised during their meetings at the Malacanan Palace.

"Overseas Filipinos are Canada's largest source of migrant workers. It is only right that our countries work together in order to better guarantee the protection and welfare of our Filipino migrant workers and to ensure that the labour requirements of Canada are met," Aquino said.

Harper will make a quick stop in Hong Kong tomorrow for a Remembrance Day ceremony before flying back to Canada.

With reports from CTV's Parliamentary Correspondent Roger Smith and The Canadian Press