Ottawa will maintain a respectful relationship with China, International Trade Minister Mary Ng said Thursday, although she warned that Canada’s biggest trading partner in Asia has changed.
“China today is not the China of the past,” Ng told reporters in Bangkok where she is attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meetings alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
It is also true, Ng said, that Canada has “had some difficulties with China” in recent years, particularly around trade. She said that is why Canada is spending a lot of time courting new and expanded relationships with other countries in Asia. Canada is developing a new Indo-Pacific strategy that is expected to be ready next month.
The difficulties between China and Canada’s Liberal government played into an awkward encounter at the G20 leaders’ meeting in Indonesia this week, where Chinese President Xi Jinping chastised Trudeau in an exchange captured on camera by Canadian media.
Xi took issue with Trudeau after the Prime Minister’s Office provided Canadian media with some basic details about a conversation Xi and Trudeau had on the sidelines of the G20 on Tuesday.
The PMO shared that Trudeau had raised concerns with Xi about Chinese interference in Canada. It also said their discussion included the Russian invasion in Ukraine, North Korea and climate change.
The PMO did not specify what “interference” Trudeau discussed with Xi. Recent reports in Canada have alleged China meddled in the 2019 election by funding specific candidates and the RCMP is investigating reports of criminal activity related to so-called “police” stations that a human rights group said China is operating within Canadian borders.
As well, the day before Xi and Trudeau spoke, a former employee of Hydro-Quebec was arrested and charged with economic espionage for allegedly obtaining trade secrets for the Chinese government.
In the video of the exchange, Xi’s comments in Mandarin are mostly translated into English on the spot by an interpreter. He said it was not appropriate for Trudeau to leak details of the conversation to the media.
But another comment that was not translated into English in the moment had Xi say in Mandarin, “We should have conversations in a respectful way. Otherwise, the results can’t be predicted.”
Then, as Xi walked away, he could be heard uttering one final comment in Mandarin: “Very naive.”
The exchange is the latest sign that Canada’s diplomatic relationship with China remains strained, even more than a year after Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig returned home in September 2021.
The two Canadians had been detained in China since December 2018, in what was largely seen as retaliation after the RCMP arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport on a U.S. extradition warrant. She returned to China the same day the men known around the world as the “Two Michaels” returned to Canada.
Ng said it is not just normal but also necessary to share with Canadians what the government is doing, and for the government to stand up for Canadian values even when that is hard.
“Canadians expect us to share with them what our work is and Canadians expect us to stand up for Canadian values,” Ng said. “They expect us to have to be able to have difficult and challenging conversations.”
Written “readouts” that give the broad strokes of the topics touched on are normally published, including by China, following formal bilateral meetings.
After Xi met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Indonesia, both countries issued such statements. The Chinese statement was more than 2,000 words long.
An informal meeting with leaders at a summit, such as the one between Xi and Trudeau, rarely comes with a published readout but the Canadian government often provides unofficial accounting of the subjects discussed to media.
In Beijing on Thursday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning dismissed any accusation that China interferes in anyone else’s domestic affairs. Ning also dismissed suggestions Xi was accusatory or threatening in the exchange with Trudeau.
“The video you mentioned was indeed a short conversation both leaders held during the G20 summit,” she said. “This is very normal. I don’t think it should be interpreted as Chairman Xi criticizing or accusing anyone.”
Mao says in this situation it was Canada that was disrespectful and condescending.
Mia Rabson/The Canadian Press