China's Foreign Minister, in Ottawa to meet with his Canadian counterpart, demanded and received a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – an unusual diplomatic move that underscores China's increasingly assertive posture on the world stage.
Foreign leaders typically meet with ministers who are equal to them in political stature. When China's Wang Yi first proposed to come to Canada, he requested a get together with Canada's Stéphane Dion. The two countries agreed in 2014 to a yearly meeting between foreign-affairs ministers.
But last week, the Chinese side also demanded a visit with Mr. Trudeau. When they were told the Prime Minister might not be available, they insisted a meeting be arranged, according to four sources with knowledge of the situation. One source said the Chinese side implied it might cancel the visit if Mr. Wang was not given time with Mr. Trudeau.
It was not until late Monday that the Prime Minister's Office agreed to meet Mr. Wang for 10 minutes, which critics say showed Ottawa was acquiescing to China. Sources said the meeting was both a show of courtesy and an opportunity for Mr. Trudeau to raise the case of Kevin Garratt, a Canadian missionary who remains behind bars in China awaiting sentencing after being tried on charges of stealing state secrets. Mr. Trudeau wanted to tell Mr. Wang it would be difficult for Canada to em-brace China's hopes for a new so-called golden era if it continues to hold Mr. Garratt.
In accepting the meeting, Mr. Trudeau also "wanted to send [China] a message after the Japan bilateral that they are a special priority," a senior government official said. The Chinese were upset after Mr. Trudeau held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the recent G7 summit.
China observers, however, suggested that the meeting with Mr. Wang showed a potentially worrying willingness to concede to Beijing's demands, at a time when Ottawa is preparing to negotiate a free-trade agreement whose value will depend in large measure on Canada's ability to insist on a good deal.
"I'm sorry, but Wang Yi is not Justin Trudeau's equal," said J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.
He faulted the Liberal government for relying on advisers whose "views on China are no doubt quite pro-Beijing. There's a willingness to bend over backwards to facilitate contact with China. So when the Prime Minister's Office faces that kind of belligerent pressure from China, chances are China will get away with doing this."
China's move was an example of hardball diplomacy similar to tactics that prompted the Queen to call Chinese emissaries "very rude" for walking out of a meeting with the British ambassador amid a dispute over plans for a visit by the Chinese President last year to London. At that time, Chinese officials threatened to call off the trip as a negotiating tactic.
In Ottawa, Mr. Wang also spent hours in meetings with Mr. Dion. Among his proposals: a visit to Canada this fall by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. A top Chinese leader has not visited Canada since 2010.
Last year was the first since 1989, the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, that Canada sent no federal cabinet ministers to China. Observers expect this year, however, to bring a major Canadian focus on China. Ottawa and Beijing are expected to announce the beginning of free-trade talks; Canada is also pushing for inclusion into the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Progress in those meetings, however, was overshadowed by a press conference in which Mr. Wang said a Canadian journalist was "full of prejudice against China and arrogance" for asking about China's human-rights record, and its imprisonment of Mr. Garratt.
In the House of Commons, opposition MPs slammed Mr. Dion for standing mute as Mr. Wang angrily waved a pen at the Ottawa press corps, whose question he called "totally unacceptable."
"The Minister of Foreign Affairs stood by quietly and said he raised these same issues behind closed doors," Conservative MP Peter Kent told the House, asking how Mr. Dion responded there. "Was the Chinese Foreign Minister as angry and condescending and disingenuous in his denials there?"
Mr. Dion was not in Question Period, but Omar Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary for consular affairs, insisted that the minister made a strong case for the release of Mr. Garratt.
"Unlike the previous government, we will always stand up for citizens abroad. Our officials, our minister raised the Garratt case and will not stop until the Garratts return home safely," Mr. Alghabra said.
NDP Foreign Affairs critic Hélène Laverdiere said Mr. Dion should not have allowed his Chinese counterpart to scold a Canadian journalist for raising serious issues. On human rights, for example, Human Rights Watch says China under current President Xi Jinping has "unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders."
"Freedom of the press is an important value for Canadians, yet our minister stayed silent," Ms. Laverdiere said.
Ottawa has a history of catering to Chinese press demands. In 2010, the Harper government kept reporters from New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV) and the Epoch Times – media outlets often critical of China – away from public events on a visit by then-president Hu Jintao. China similarly cancelled visas for NTDTV journalists scheduled to accompany Paul Martin on a trip to China in 2005.
"The Chinese probably push for more than any other other state. Not only do they have all the vanity of a big country, but they also have amazing insecurity. And that's a very lethal combination," said David Mulroney, who served as Canadian ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012 and is now a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.
"There is an edge to Chinese diplomacy. They really do think they occupy the centre of the Earth," he said. "It's unpleasant sometimes to be on the receiving end of that, but you have to decide: Are we going to engage these folks and have a conversation with them or not?"
With Mr. Wang's visit, he said, the most important question is not who he met, but what concessions were made during his discussions.
China has "grown more arrogant and assertive" as its economic might has grown, he added.
That includes its demands for access to foreign leaders.
In Australia, "it's quite normal for the [Chinese] foreign minister to meet the Prime Minister," said Geoff Raby, who was that country's ambassador in Beijing from 2007 to 2011.
Such meetings have happened in Canberra in 2008 and 2014. In Canada, too, Stephen Harper met with the Chinese foreign minister in 2009, although the Conservative government denied such a meeting on another visit.
"I'm not saying they're equal. I'm saying what the practice is. They're not equal at all," Mr. Raby said. "That's why the meeting between Wang Yi and an Australian prime minister would be no more than a half hour." The Australian side expects such a courtesy to be reciprocated in China.
"The essence of foreign relations is reciprocity and, while not always achieved, it is something friendly countries aspire to," said Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador to China.
But trying to strike that balance is something "that frustrates many a China-based diplomat," he said. "Usually, China does not give foreigners the same courtesies it asks or demands for itself."
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this article contained an incorrect word in the quote by MP Peter Kent. This version has been corrected.