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Canada-China tensions: Why they began and what’s happened since

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Relations between Canada and China have been strained for more than six months and took a turn for the worse this week when further trade limits were placed on Canadian exports.

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Tensions have been rising since December 2018, when Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, at the request of the United States.

Jenifer Bartman, a business adviser, explained to Global News that the issue revolves largely around U.S. and China relations — and Canada is caught in the middle.

“We have this backdrop of all this uncertainty between these two parties, where Canada is not either party,” Bartman told Global News.

She said that means the options for Canada in Meng’s case are limited, while the U.S. has the ability to drop the extradition.

Here’s a look at what exactly happened in December and the diplomatic tensions it has spurred — and the possible next steps.

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WATCH: Chinese embassy asks Canada to suspend all meat exports over ‘forged certificates’

How it all began

The tensions began after Meng was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018 at the request of U.S. authorities, who want to try her on fraud charges.

The arrest was met with sharp criticism from China, which called on Canada to release the executive.

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Huawei also denounced the arrest, saying Meng was taken on “unspecific charges” and “very little information was provided.”

“The company believes the Canadian and U.S. legal systems will ultimately reach a just conclusion,” a statement from the company read at the time.

Canadian officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, have said the country is merely following the rule of law.

Meng has yet to be released and is under house arrest in one of her mansions in Vancouver.

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Detainment of Canadians

Days after Meng’s arrest, China detained two Canadians. Chinese officials claimed the detentions were not related to the arrest of Meng.

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The two detained men, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, were accused of conspiring together to steal state secrets. Months later, in May, they were formally arrested and charged.

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No evidence has been provided, and they have not been allowed access to family members or lawyers while remaining in custody.

Trudeau has repeatedly denounced the detentions as “arbitrary” and called on China to release the two men.

Consular officials regularly visit Kovrig and Spavor in China and provide support to their families, according to Global Affairs Canada.

However, one expert said there is little Canada can do to secure their freedom.

Roland Paris, former foreign affairs adviser to Trudeau and University of Ottawa professor, told Global News in May that the country has “very few options.”

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“I doubt the Chinese will release them until the Meng hearing is completed, and even then, it might take some time. That’s the painful reality that we’re in, and it’s even more so because it’s not of our own making,” Paris said.

He added that Canada’s leverage lies in working with its allies, particularly the United States, as well as others to pressure the Chinese government into releasing them.

WATCH: Canada has followed extradition treaty commitments with Meng Wanzhou, says Freeland

Trade bans on Canadian products

Another form of pressure China has placed on Canada includes trade bans on key exports. The country has not acknowledged whether these are related to Meng’s case.

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Earlier this year, China put limits on Canadian canola products, citing concerns of pesticides and bacteria.

Approximately 40 per cent of canola produced by Canadian farmers is supplied to China, according to the Canola Council of Canada. This made China the largest importer of Canadian canola products in 2018.

China has also placed limits on soybeans and peas.

On Tuesday, China announced it would halt all meat exports from Canada, citing a problem of “forged certificates.” China represented Canada’s third-biggest export market for pork in April 2019, behind the U.S. and Japan.

In the same month, beef and veal exports to China totalled more than $63 million, representing 6.1 per cent of Canada’s total — these exports had increased by 344 per cent year over year.

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WATCH: China bans more Canadian products — What’s the impact on Alberta farmers?

Canadian officials have questioned the reasoning for these trade bans, with International Trade Minister Jim Carr asking for proof of China’s claims.

“Someone is going to have to come up with some proof that there’s something wrong with the product and that the product originates from Canada,” Carr said Wednesday.

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While it’s uncertain how long these trade limits will last, Bartman said that China doesn’t just run the risk of hurting Canada — it could also hurt itself.

“China is a very large economy, and so in my mind, they can’t be mad at everybody,” she said, noting that China is also dealing with trade disagreements with the U.S.

But for Canada specifically, Bartman said officials should think about mitigating the risk these types of trade issues pose by diversifying so it’s not reliant on “a handful of countries.”

Pressure on Trudeau to resolve situation

Amid all this, there has been growing criticism from opposition parties about how the Trudeau government is handling the situation.

On Tuesday, Conservative agriculture critic Luc Berthold accused Liberals of “failing Canada’s meat sector” due to the trade ban.

“It is clear that this is not an issue of food safety but a political issue caused by Justin Trudeau’s incompetence and weakness on the world stage,” the statement said.

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“Canada has already lost Chinese market access for canola, soy and now meat. And while this has been taking place, the Trudeau Liberals have failed to take decisive action and stand up to the Chinese government.”

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Meanwhile, officials have said the government is looking at options of resolving the detentions and trade issues. The Trudeau government has also indicated it will not step back on Meng’s extradition proceedings amid pressure from China.

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“There has been no political interference in this case,” Adam Austen, a spokesman for Freeland, said recently. “It has been entirely about officials taking decisions according to Canada’s commitments.”

The Chinese have refused to talk to senior Canadian government officials, including Trudeau and Freeland.

Should Trump, other world leaders intervene?

That’s why there has been talk of international allies stepping in and vouching for Canadian interests.

This week, Trudeau is at the G20 leaders’ summit in Japan, where China is expected to be a focus. Trudeau will meet with European partners to discuss a range of issues, including China.

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump offered to help mediate the troubles between China and Canada.

“Anything I can do to help Canada, I will be doing,” Trump said while holding a joint press conference with Trudeau in Washington.

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Some say that’s a good idea.

It should come as no surprise that China doesn’t want to entertain a meeting with the prime minister, which is why Trump remains Canada’s best hope, said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China.

“That would be the strongest card that could be played in our interests,” he said. “It would be an American card played to say … ‘If you want a normal relationship with us, you’ll leave our allies alone,'” he explained.

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But China seems set on pressuring Canada to free Meng.

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In a regular daily news conference at China’s foreign ministry in Beijing on Wednesday, spokesman Geng Shuang again pressured Canada on the release.

“Our position is very clear,” said Geng. “We urge the Canadian side to take our solemn concerns seriously, immediately release Ms. Meng Wanzhou and ensure that she returns to China safe and sound.”

— With files from Global News reporters Jessica Vomiero, Jesse Ferreras and the Associated Press


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