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Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said Thursday it’s best to maintain a dialogue with China.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia’s premier says he told a senior Communist Party official during trade talks that Canadians need to feel “safe” and protected by the rule of law as he boosts tourism ties between his province and China.

Stephen McNeil said Thursday it’s best to maintain a dialogue with China, even as federal Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale decried the nation’s formal arrest of two Canadian citizens it has been holding since December.

There’s been escalating tension between the nations following the RCMP’s December arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou after an American request for her extradition.

After Meng’s arrest, China imprisoned two Canadians – ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor – and accused them of violating China’s national security, with both still locked in a Chinese prison.

McNeil said his relationship with the governor of Guangdong province, a region just north of Hong Kong, continued to improve during his recent trip – and trade and cultural exchanges are still growing as a result of six years of visits.

However, McNeil said during his trip – the first by a Canadian premier since the escalation of tensions – he let governor Ma Xingrui and other Chinese officials know Canadians need to feel secure.

“If I’m coming here and asking Nova Scotians and Canadians to go into Guangdong province as tourists, I need to be reassured they can ... feel free to experience what the province has to offer and at the same time be able to come back home when their vacation is over,” McNeil told reporters after his return from his Chinese-European trade and tourism mission.

He said that as citizens explore the culture of China during trips and exchanges, it’s important, “they feel safe and they (the Chinese government) recognize the rule of law will be an important foundation of that.”

Still, McNeil says it’s better to continue to be in dialogue and to try and build relationships, even as tensions over the detentions and China’s refusal of Canadian shipments of canola continue.

“Not having a conversation solves nothing,” he said.

The province plans to continue expanding relationships with the southern Chinese province, and McNeil said the governor of Guangdong is expected to send a delegation to Nova Scotia in the near future.

In addition, “I’ve committed on going back into Guangdong province later in the year,” said the Liberal premier.

Nova Scotia exports to China totalled $794 million in 2018, up from $275 million in 2014.

McNeil said he felt no higher tensions or unease during this visit than in his visits over the past six years, and said that he was greeted warmly and treated well.

Aware of the sudden crackdown on Canadian exports such as canola by Chinese authorities, McNeil said during their discussions, he reassured the Guangdong officials about quality assurance protocols in place for his province’s seafood.

McNeil is also pushing for a direct Halifax-to-China flight and is also hoping for more cargo flights, although no deals have been formalized yet.