China’s Foreign Ministry says relations with Canada stand “at a crossroads” after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Beijing of engaging in “coercive diplomacy.”
Speaking to media outlets on Dec. 27, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused Trudeau of “misunderstanding” and “miscalculating” Canada’s approach to Beijing.
Zhao was responding to Trudeau’s comments in a year-end interview with Global News, where the prime minister suggested Beijing was playing democratic countries off one another and urged a “united front” against China’s “coercive diplomacy.”
“Does Canada see China as a partner or a rival? This is a fundamental question bearing on the future of bilateral ties that Canada must think through,” Zhao said, prompted by a question from state broadcaster China Central Television.
“China attaches importance to relations with Canada and holds that we should grow bilateral ties on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.… Canada should replace its wrong perception of China with an objective and rational view, adopt a positive and pragmatic China policy, work with the Chinese side in the same direction and bring bilateral relations back onto the right track of development.”
Speaking to Global News’ Ottawa bureau chief Mercedes Stephenson earlier this month, Trudeau said the Chinese communist government has used its economic heft to “very cleverly” play democracies off one another.
Trudeau told Stephenson he believes democratic countries need to do a better job at countering Beijing’s tactics.
“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 said.
“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 were a marked departure from the Liberal leader’s optimism six years ago that Canada could expand trading relationships with the world’s second-largest economy. But the prime minister said President 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.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s rhetoric aside, Canada’s relationship with the Middle Kingdom does appear to be at an inflection point.
Relations between Ottawa and Beijing have been at a low since 2018, when Canadian authorities – acting on a lawful request from the United States – detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at a Vancouver airport.
As Meng faced extradition to the U.S., where she was wanted on fraud charges, Chinese authorities detained two Canadians – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – on nebulous national security grounds. The two Michaels were held in Chinese prisons for almost three years before being released in September – shortly after Meng cut a deal with U.S. prosecutors and returned to China.
With that episode over, the Liberal government is faced with two major decisions that will have long-term ramifications for the two countries’ relationship.
The first is a decision on Huawei’s participation in Canada’s 5G networks. The telecom has long been accused of having a close relationship to the Chinese government and military, and has been banned or severely restricted by Canada’s closest security allies.
Huawei has long denied concerns that it could assist Beijing’s espionage and intelligence operations. But earlier this month the Washington Post, citing 100 internal Huawei PowerPoint presentations, reported the company was actively pitching the Chinese government on ways it could track individuals and support “ideological reeducation” and labour schedules for prisoners.
Trudeau suggested in September that a decision on Huawei’s 5G future in Canada would be coming “within weeks,” but months later Ottawa has yet to announce its position.
The second decision the Liberals face is a new Indo-Pacific strategy. Trudeau tasked his new foreign minister, Melanie Joly, with developing a “comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy to deepen diplomatic, economic and defence partnerships and international assistance in the region.”
Joly will be supported in that task not only by the ministers of international trade and international development, but also by Defence Minister Anita Anand – suggesting that the Liberals are concerned with more than just economic factors in the region.
While Joly’s mandate letter does not mention China specifically, Trudeau asked the foreign minister to work with G7 nations and “likeminded partners” to “expand collective responses to arbitrary detention, economic coercion, cyber threats, foreign interference in democratic processes and egregious violations of human rights.”