Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Chinese government is using its economic weight to “very cleverly” play democratic countries off one another.
But Trudeau suggested democratic countries’ pursuit of Chinese markets means political ideals can take a back seat to economic imperatives.
“We compete with each other. We’re trying to see how could we get better access for Canadian beef than Australian beef to this country or that market,” Trudeau told Global News’ Ottawa Bureau Chief Mercedes Stephenson.
In a wide-ranging year-end interview, the prime minister said like-minded countries should “show a united front” against Beijing’s increasingly “coercive diplomacy.”
“We’ve been competing and China has been from time to time very cleverly playing us off each other in an open market competitive way. We need to do a better job of working together and standing strong so that China can’t, you know, play the angles and divide us one against the other.”
Trudeau’s comments come as Canada’s relationship with China is at a low. Canada’s 2018 detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou – at the behest of American authorities, who wanted the telecom executive on fraud charges – resulted in a diplomatic chill with Beijing.
It also led to the detention of the Two Michaels – Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman – by Chinese authorities on national security charges. After nearly three years in prison, the Michaels were released in September shortly after Meng’s lawyers cut a deal with U.S. prosecutors.
Reflecting on meeting the two men after their release, Trudeau said it was a “surprisingly emotional” moment.
“As a leader, as a prime minister, you want to do the right thing. You know what the right thing is, but there’s a human cost,” Trudeau said.
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“These two Canadians were stuck in terrible conditions, totally arbitrarily, and there was at least a theoretical way of me taking shortcuts and backroom deals to get them home. But I knew and I felt that you had to do the right thing and we stayed the course on the right thing.”
Trudeau said that one of the Michaels told him he did the right thing, and that it “was satisfying to me on a personal level in ways that surprised even me.”
The experience clearly changed Trudeau, who once said he admired the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to quickly mobilize their country, and who spent his early years in government attempting to improve relations and trade between the two countries.
Xi Jinping’s China today is “no longer the China that we thought about 10 years ago or even five years ago in some ways,” Trudeau said.
“We have to be alert to that possibility, but also to that mind-frame that they have moving forward, which means there are things we’re going to continue to challenge China on – human rights, democracy in Hong Kong, supports for journalists, you know, non-interference in the goings-on of, you know, independent countries in Asia.”
But Trudeau said Canada must continue to work with Beijing on key multi-lateral issues, including climate change.
“There are ways in which we’re going to have to compete with China, whether it’s on a commercial level, on trade deals, on goods and services – being thoughtful around that,” Trudeau said.
“And then there are ways we’re going to want to work with China and think about climate change, for example, where they are going to be a significant player if we’re going to be able to decarbonize our global economy … So all these different nuances are going to continue.”
The Liberal government has also encountered friction with the other global superpower – the United States. After the tumultuous Trump years, Trudeau and his government may have been hoping for a smoother relationship with President Joe Biden. But a trend toward protectionism and domestic political instability in the U.S. did not disappear after the 2020 presidential election.
Canada has traditionally been able to rely on the U.S. to guarantee the country’s safety, and Trudeau said the Americans remain strong allies.
“Yes, the global context is shifting … The flavours are shifting a little bit, but we are in (an) extremely good position,” Trudeau said.
“The one thing that has always served Canada and indeed a lot of middle powers in the world is multilateralism, is working with like-minded countries, is aligning our focus, our initiatives, our measures forward, knowing that no country is able to go it alone.”
“And quite frankly, what we’re seeing and what we saw through the past four years of the United States under (Donald) Trump is that even the U.S., when it tries to go it alone, isn’t able to truly go it alone.”
Stephenson’s full interview with Trudeau airs on Global News on Dec. 25.