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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to the podium for a media availability with reporters on the final day of the APEC summit, in San Francisco, Calif., Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to follow U.S. President Joe Biden in describing China’s President as a dictator Friday but offered little explanation as to why Canada failed to arrange a formal meeting with Xi Jinping at a San Francisco summit.

Mr. Trudeau spoke just before wrapping up a visit to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in Northern California where Mr. Xi appeared to be on a charm offensive, holding formal meetings not only with Mr. Biden but also the leaders of Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Peru and Brunei.

Speaking in French, Mr. Trudeau described relations with China right now as a process of gradual engagement that he hoped would one day lead to a meeting with Mr. Xi. “I don’t think we are at the point now,” he said to reporters.

The American and Chinese leaders held hours of meetings Wednesday aimed at stabilizing their faltering relationship and emerged with what appeared to be positive news: They agreed to restore high-level communications between their militaries and Beijing pledged to thwart the export of chemicals and pill presses for illicit production of the deadly opioid fentanyl.

Mr. Biden capped this entente, however, by acknowledging to the media that he still regards Mr. Xi as a dictator.

The Chinese Communist Party has run China since 1949 but the country’s foreign ministry, without mentioning the U.S. President, called the statement “extremely wrong and irresponsible political manipulation.” China regularly ranks near the bottom of Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House’s annual ranking of countries on personal and political freedoms.

Mr. Trudeau, however, twice avoided using the word dictator when asked if he would characterize Mr. Xi this way. Back in 2013, he professed a level of admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship” when asked which foreign country he most admires – because it allows the Chinese to “turn their economy around on a dime.”

On Friday, however, Mr. Trudeau avoided the term.

“China’s a one-party state. I don’t think anyone would call it a democracy,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Asked a second time, he said: “Listen we can get into all sorts of different definitions. The fact is he is not running a democracy. It’s an authoritarian state.”

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum in San Francisco Nov. 16, U.S. President Joe Biden said his face-to-face meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping emphasized the two countries' commitment to cooperate in areas where they both stood to benefit.


Canada’s relationship with China has been strained by revelations of foreign interference this year. A formal public inquiry is looking into interference in the democratic process by China, Russia and others. In May, Ottawa expelled a Chinese diplomat, Zhao Wei, for meddling in Canadian politics after The Globe and Mail revealed Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong was secretly targeted by Beijing for his criticism of its human-rights abuses.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Xi ran into each other briefly at the APEC leaders’ summit Thursday. The Prime Minister recounted the episode to journalists Friday.

Mr. Trudeau, when asked what the two men talked about, said he pitched Mr. Xi on closer co-operation.

“I talked about how we need to keep our officials and teams working together to try and create constructive dialogue around issues that matter to us individually but also matter to the world,” he said. “This is part of the ongoing engagement that Canada needs to have around the world including with countries we disagree with.”

Asked what Mr. Xi said to him, Mr. Trudeau replied by saying, “He acknowledged what I said.”

Last year during a G20 meeting in Bali, media video cameras captured Mr. Xi berating Mr. Trudeau over alleged leaks of their private meeting at the summit.

In San Francisco Friday, the Prime Minister bristled when a journalist suggested he was deliberately trying to avoid making news on Canada-China relations at APEC.

“This trip is about engaging constructively with partners across the Indo-Pacific for the benefit of Canadians. If you don’t think that doing good work with people across Indo-Pacific is, is news. Well, that’s a reflection the media has to take.”

Mr. Xi also courted U.S. business leaders during his trip to San Francisco – his first to the United States since 2017 to try to woo back American investors.

“China is willing to be a partner and friend of the United States,” he told a Wednesday dinner with American business leaders where attendees included Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Mr. Xi is attempting to address a significant drop-off in foreign business investment driven by Beijing’s draconian pandemic lockdowns, regulatory crackdowns on companies in the name of national security, and the hostile U.S. attitude toward China in Washington over recent years.

With reports from Reuters

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