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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang walks to his limousine upon his arrival in Ottawa on Wednesday.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Justin Trudeau is defending his decision to negotiate a controversial extradition treaty with China, arguing a deal would offer Canada higher-level relations with Beijing – part of closer ties he says have yielded advances on matters such as Canadians in distress.

The Prime Minister said the "strong, robust" relationship he's building with the Chinese "allows us to make gains on human rights and consular files," successes that he says eluded the former Conservative government, which often had strained relations with Beijing.

Mr. Trudeau's defence of extradition-treaty talks comes as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang begins a four-day visit to Canada. Beijing lately has been pushing Ottawa for a treaty and the state-run China Daily in a recent article named Canada as one country that has become a popular destination for "corrupt Chinese officials" due in part to "a lack of bilateral extradition treaties."

Globe editorial: China wants an extradition treaty. Ottawa should say no

Opinion: Extradition treaty with China would be an affront to human rights

Mr. Trudeau dodged questions from reporters Wednesday about Chinese security agents covertly entering Canada to bully expatriates, including some suspected of corruption, to return home. As The Globe and Mail reported this week, China resorted to efforts to strong-arm Chinese nationals to go back to China because it was angry at Ottawa for "not being willing to send people back the instant they asked" and for dragging its feet on an extradition treaty.

Asked about this, Mr. Trudeau instead lauded what he called a rebuilding of Canada's ties with China after a decade of cooler relations between Beijing and the Conservative government in Ottawa. "The fact is the relationship with China during the previous government was very inconsistent," he said. "What we needed to do was set a positive, robust relationship."

Neither the United States nor Britain nor New Zealand currently have extradition treaties with China, although countries in such a situation do negotiate handovers at times.

In mentioning progress in areas such as Canadians in distress, Mr. Trudeau didn't name which consular files he was citing. But the only one of note in recent months is China's release of jailed missionary Kevin Garratt last week – on the heels of Mr. Trudeau's first visit as Prime Minister to the Asian giant. And it's a surprising remark by Mr. Trudeau while talking about extradition, given Liberals have so far insisted Mr. Garratt's freedom was not part of a swap for agreeing to hand over fugitives to Beijing.

Mr. Trudeau was asked Tuesday by Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose in the House to explain the benefit of an extradition treaty to Canada. He replied that it created a "high-level security dialogue" with the Chinese where "we can talk about issues that are important to us and issues that are important to the Chinese government."

Mr. Garratt had been jailed for two years on suspicion of spying and the Harper government had failed to obtain his release, even after a 2014 visit to China by the Conservative prime minister.

In 2011, Canada repatriated Lai Changxing, accused in China of heading a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation. China reassured Canada he would not face the death penalty.

David Matas, a Canadian lawyer who represented Mr. Lai, called the extradition treaty a bad idea.

"An extradition treaty with China would, in my view, be a grave mistake," Mr. Matas said. "Such a treaty creates general problems because it means accepting Chinese party/state allegations at face value and the Chinese justice system as fair, when it is manifestly not so."

Canadian government documents from 2015 obtained though access-to-information legislation say a list of 100 Chinese fugitives published that year by Beijing included 26 people whom investigators in China believed had fled to Canada.

Opposition critics said an extradition treaty with China would be a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and said Chinese dissidents living in Canada will feel less secure knowing they could be subject to extradition.

"Canada is giving its seal of approval effectively to the Chinese judicial system, which would be a clear violation of our belief in the rule of law and human rights," Conservative MP Jason Kenney said.

"China has one of the worst human-rights records in the world; the highest number of executions in the world; they imprison political prisoners and religious and other dissidents," he said, "so the notion that Canada would co-operate with that judicial system, I find very troubling."

One problem Canada faces with China is its inability to verify that the Chinese do not torture or maltreat those extradited home when the individual is placed inside that country's massive prison system. Amnesty International's latest country report on China says torture and other ill treatment remain widespread in detention and during interrogation.

Mr. Trudeau vowed, however, that Canada would not release a Chinese national to Beijing if that individual would face the death penalty there. He said Canada would not consent to a transfer that violated Canadian values.

"Canada has extremely high standards on extradition treaties. We have a very, very rigorous process that conforms with the expectations and the values of Canadians."

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