Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has met with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, for the first time since Beijing arrested two Canadians last December in what critics have called acts of “hostage diplomacy.”
China’s embassy in Canada, however, said following the meeting that the obstacle to improving Canada-China relations remains Canada’s detention of high-profile Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, a businesswoman whom China watchers have described as a member of China’s corporate royalty.
The discussion between Ms. Freeland and Mr. Wang, China’s Foreign Minister, took place on Friday on the margins of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Bangkok.
Relations between Canada and China have deteriorated over the past eight months following Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s Ms. Meng at Vancouver International Airport on an extradition request from the United States. The Americans allege she helped the flagship Chinese company violate U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
Days after Ms. Meng was detained, Beijing seized former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, actions Canada’s allies have called apparent retaliation.
“The fact we were able to speak and discuss these issues – face to face and directly with one another – absolutely is a positive step,” Ms. Freeland told journalists on a teleconference on Friday regarding the bilateral talk with Mr. Wang.
She said she spoke to the Chinese Foreign Minister about Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. The two men remain jailed, cut off from family and lawyers, and have been charged with espionage.
“I took the opportunity to express Canada’s concern over the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been arbitrarily detained in China,” Ms. Freeland said.
She said in return Mr. Wang “expressed concerns regarding the extradition process of Meng Wanzhou.” Ms. Meng is free on $10-million bail and living in a multimillion-dollar home in Vancouver as she awaits an extradition hearing in January.
Speaking later on Friday, the Chinese embassy in Canada noted the meeting in Bangkok was at Canada’s request.
It also portrayed Canada as eager to remedy the relationship, citing China’s Foreign Minister.
“Wang Yi said that the Canadian side, including the Foreign Minister herself, said more than once that the Canadian side attaches great importance to relations with China and is willing to make efforts in this regard,” the Chinese embassy in Canada said in a statement.
“China attaches importance to the above-mentioned stands of the Canadian side.”
The Chinese embassy in Canada made it clear Ms. Meng’s detention is what stands in the way of a resumption of normal relations.
“Regrettably, the arbitrary detention of a Chinese citizen by the Canadian side last December has aroused Chinese people’s strong indignation and caused serious difficulties to China-Canada relations," the Chinese embassy in Canada said in a statement.
"The Chinese government resolutely safeguards the legitimate and legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and enterprises. We hope that this issue can be properly resolved as soon as possible so that China-Canada relations can return to the right track at the earliest.”
Ms. Freeland said the two ministers “committed to continuing discussions.”
She declined to elaborate on the contents of her conversation with Mr. Wang, saying she believes the key to successful negotiations is to keep them secret. She cited the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement as evidence.
“As I think Canadians appreciate very well, our relationship with China is complicated at the moment and I am convinced, as I was during the NAFTA negotiations … that the surest route to a successful outcome is for us not to be negotiating in public.”
Since last December, China has inflicted increasing economic pain on Canada. Not only has Beijing blocked pork and beef exports from Canada, but purchases of soybeans have stopped and buyers for Canada’s canola seed have disappeared.
This sign of a potential breakthrough in chilly relations comes about six weeks before a federal election campaign begins in September. Canadians are to go to the polls in October.
Less than one month ago, former Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum revealed he cautioned Chinese officials that further sanctions against Canada over Ms. Meng could help spur the election of a Conservative government, which would be far less favourable to Beijing.
In July, Mr. McCallum, a veteran Liberal insider, told the South China Morning Post he warned Beijing that further punitive measures against Canada could help oust Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from power.
“Anything that is more negative against Canada will help the Conservatives, [who] are much less friendly to China than the Liberals,” Mr. McCallum told the Post. “I hope and I don’t see any reason why things will get worse. It would be nice if things will get better between now and [Canada’s federal] election [in October].”
Ms. Freeland later distanced the Trudeau government from Mr. McCallum’s comments. She also rebuked such conduct, saying Canadians should not be offering advice to any foreign government on how to affect election results in Canada.
"Mr. McCallum does not speak for the Government of Canada,” Ms. Freeland said at the time.