Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his federal cabinet met privately with six senior ambassadors Wednesday evening as Canada mounts an international campaign to gain global allies in its escalating diplomatic battle with China.
Calling China’s behaviour “a threat to all countries,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday that she welcomes the support Canada is receiving from its allies as it opposes China’s treatment of three Canadians.
Federal ministers are gathered in Sherbrooke for three days of meetings ahead of Parliament’s return on Jan. 28.
Tensions between Canada and China have escalated since the Dec. 1 arrest by Canadian police of Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou, at the request of U.S. authorities. The Globe reported this week that China interrogated detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig about his past diplomatic work in China, prompting a protest from Ottawa that Beijing is violating the rules of diplomatic immunity. Mr. Kovrig and another Canadian, Michael Spavor, have been detained in apparent retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest.
In recent days, China invited international media to witness a decision to issue a death sentence to Canadian Robert Schellenberg, who had previously been convicted in China of drug trafficking. Ms. Freeland called the death sentence “inhumane” earlier this week.
John McCallum, Canada’s Ambassador to China and a former member of the Trudeau cabinet, was among the six ambassadors invited to brief cabinet. He said Wednesday that Canada is working with its international allies to convince China that its recent behaviour will harm its reputation as a place to invest.
“I think we have to engage the senior Chinese leaders and persuade them that what they’re doing is not good for China’s image in the world, it’s not good for the image of corporate China in the world,” he said "And I think that we have to also work with our U.S. allies. I have a close relation with the U.S. ambassador. So there are many fronts we are working on, but one of the main ones is to persuade China, not necessarily through Canadians, through corporate and government leaders from around the world that this behaviour is not in their interests, also through media.”
Earlier, Mr. McCallum said he has been in contact with Chinese authorities and that his focus is on the safety of the three Canadians.
“My first priority by far is to do everything in my capacity to secure the release of the two Michaels as quickly as possible and to help to save the life of Mr. Schellenberg,” he said. “I have spoken to all of their families. I will be speaking tomorrow to Mr. Schellenberg’s father, so I am determined to do what I can and there are various things that we are doing to secure their release and his life, so our work is consumed every day by these priorities.”
Ms. Freeland addressed Canada’s strained diplomatic relations earlier in the day Wednesday during a stop in Repentigny, Que.
“This is a difficult moment in our relationship with China,” she told reporters.
Ms. Freeland said Canada is grateful for the support it has received in recent days from Germany, Estonia, France, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States.
“Our government has been energetically reaching out to our allies and explaining that the arbitrary detentions of Canadians are not just about Canada. They represent a way of behaving which is a threat to all countries,” she said.
Ms. Freeland said Wednesday she will be raising China’s actions with international political and business leaders next week when she attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“I’d also like to thank all of the Canadian businesses that I’ve been speaking to to get their view of the situation,” she said. “Canada has a deep and long-standing relationship with China. It’s a relationship with many strands and this is a difficult moment. Canada is clear about our principles and our position and we’re also clear that it is a broad and deep relationship.”
In addition to Mr. McCallum, the cabinet met with Marc-André Blanchard, Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Janice Charette, Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom; Stéphane Dion, another former member of the Trudeau cabinet who is now Ambassador to Germany and Special Envoy to the European Union; Isabelle Hudon, Canadian Ambassador to France; and David MacNaughton, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States.
Prior to the evening cabinet meeting, Mr. Trudeau spoke at a Liberal Party fundraising event nearby. Anti-pipeline protesters gathered outside the event to oppose the government’s policies on the environment and Indigenous rights. The Prime Minister turned and waved at them as he entered the venue.