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Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China August 31, 2016.POOL New/Reuters

Late in the afternoon of Aug. 31, 2016, Xi Jinping greeted Justin Trudeau in Villa 12 at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, a storied spot where the Chinese leadership has hosted some of its most valued guests. Kim Il-sung, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher stayed there. So did Mao Zedong.

The 2016 trip was Mr. Trudeau’s first visit to China as Prime Minister, and he arrived with high expectations. He wanted to rekindle a relationship with a rising superpower whose consumer markets and bulging capital accounts offered opportunity for Canadian commerce.

Mr. Trudeau also saw a role for Canada in furthering China’s interests.

“He was saying that, like his father had helped China to rejoin the United Nations, he would help China to occupy its rightful place on the international scene,” said a person who was in the room. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they are not authorized to disclose what took place in the meeting.

The offer from Mr. Trudeau did not find a receptive audience. His comments were perceived as presumptuous, the person said, particularly by Mr. Xi, who has shown little evidence of seeking succour from countries perceived as smaller and weaker.

Mr. Trudeau’s effort to find new common ground in Beijing preceded the frictions that would follow China’s seizure of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on espionage charges in 2018. They were taken into custody days after Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese technology firm Huawei, on a U.S. extradition request.

But the details of Mr. Trudeau’s offer to Mr. Xi, which have not been previously reported, shed light on the Canadian leader’s initial posture toward Beijing, and China’s early views on him – a background that has remained relevant as the Liberal government has sought new ways of dealing with the world’s second-largest economy.

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Earlier this year, the federal government called Dominic Barton, its ambassador to Beijing, back to Canada for discussions. There has been little talk since then of any new Canadian approach to China. But recent Chinese court judgments against Mr. Spavor, who received an 11-year prison term, and Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian who was sentenced to death for alleged drug trafficking, have once again underscored how China remains one of Canada’s most pressing – and difficult – foreign policy issues.

In the meantime, Ottawa continues to tread cautiously when it comes to Beijing.

Canada has asserted itself on human rights issues. It has been vocal in condemning China’s oppressive treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. And the federal government suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong after Beijing used new legal measures that eroded the city’s autonomy. Spurred by the detentions of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, Canada has also led an international coalition condemning hostage diplomacy.

But Canada remains alone among the Five Eyes intelligence allies in issuing no decision to date on allowing installation of Huawei’s 5G technology, which some Canadian allies have banned for fear of China using it for spying purposes. And Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet refrained from joining a parliamentary vote declaring China’s actions in Xinjiang to be genocide.

Mr. Trudeau has resisted calls to boycott the Beijing Olympics. And he did not impose retaliatory trade measures after China blocked imports of some Canadian agricultural products.

Under his leadership, the Canadian government has been deferential to Beijing on certain issues – for example, Ottawa initially opposed the granting of an award to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen by the Halifax International Security Forum – while doing little of note to act on warnings from Canada’s intelligence community about Chinese influence in universities and intimidation of the Chinese community inside Canada.

In response to a request for comment, the Prime Minister’s Office provided a link to a 2016 news release in which Mr. Trudeau says that he had “made it clear to the leaders I met that Canada wants to increase engagement with a peaceful, stable and prosperous China.”

The Prime Minister’s press secretary, Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, did not comment on whether Canada remains open to partnering with China in ways that could help Beijing assert itself internationally.

Instead, she pointed to foreign support for Canada’s initiative to condemn hostage diplomacy, with Mr. Trudeau saying at the time: “We’ve also seen, repeatedly, allies and friends stand up for the rights of these Canadians who are arbitrarily detained, in their own bilateral conversations with China.”

It’s not clear how Mr. Trudeau saw Canada as positioned to bolster China’s prominence.

But his allusion to family history is instructive. Pierre Trudeau first travelled to China in 1949, the inaugural year of Communist rule, and sought to smooth Beijing’s entry into the United Nations in 1971. Canada’s resumption of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1970, after agreeing to a linguistic formulation taking “note of” China’s claims to Taiwan, created a template soon followed by other Western countries – most notably the U.S.

In 1973, Pierre Trudeau became the first Canadian prime minister to visit China.

Decades later, Justin Trudeau “was out to fulfill the mission that his father Pierre Trudeau had charted for the two countries. This mission was one of integrating China into the international scene,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at University of Toronto and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center.

But Mr. Trudeau and his administration were caught “like deer in headlights” when Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were seized, she said.

“They had to pivot 180 degrees from talk of a free trade deal with China in 2017 to dealing with hostage diplomacy and wolf-warrior advances from the Chinese side.”

“Any hope for a quiet, behind-the-doors negotiation has been long dashed, so I would imagine the desire to have better relations with China is now tempered by the frosty reality,” Prof. Fu added. “This reality is that Beijing can turn on Canada overnight – and once it turns, there is very little Canada can do but to join a multilateral alliance of Western liberal democracies trying to counterbalance Beijing.”

Mr. Trudeau’s foreign trade ambitions extended beyond Beijing. He also sought a new chapter with India early in his tenure, part of a broader effort to diversify trade and investment.

His approach to China was in part naive, said Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy who specializes in China.

“The major problem with the Liberals’ China policies until recently was lack of awareness of the pernicious effects of China’s growing power globally,” she said. “The Liberal government was caught unprepared and had no strategy in place when the relations turned sour quickly after the Meng case.”

Still, the hawkish response to China advocated by the opposition Conservatives may be little better, Prof. Ong added. Such an approach “hardens public opinion and perpetuates the vicious circle by forcing the government of the day to be “tough” on China,” she said. “Neither of the two extreme approaches is helpful, in my view.”

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