Politics

Canadian officials going ahead with China trip, despite tensions with Beijing

Despite the heightened state of political tension between Ottawa and Beijing, MPs and senators plan to proceed with a trip to China this week.

Canada-China relations have been rocky since the arrest of Huawei's CFO and the detention of two Canadians

Michael Spavor and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig were taken into custody in mid-December, Chinese officials say. (Associated Press/International Crisis Group/Canadian Press)

Despite the heightened state of political tension between Ottawa and Beijing, MPs and senators plan to proceed with a trip to China this week.

Senators Victor Oh and Joseph Day and MPs Michael Cooper, Geng Tan, Majid Jowhari and Chandra Arya will arrive in China on Jan. 5. The trip, which is being hosted by the Canada-China Legislative Association, comes after a Chinese official issued strong words about two Canadians who have been detained by Chinese authorities since early December.

Cooper, the sole Conservative MP on the trip, said Day was told by Global Affairs Canada that the trip should go ahead.

"At the end of the day, if there was a risk, we wouldn't be going. That call was made by Global Affairs Canada, in conjunction with our embassy officials, and the message that they sent was that it would be beneficial for us to go," Cooper, an Alberta MP, told CBC News.

"I'm going to take my cues from Global Affairs Canada, and I just have every confidence ... with Global Affairs Canada and with our embassy officials, that we will have a safe and successful mission to China."

An official in Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's office said the decision on whether to proceed with the trip was left up to the parliamentarians themselves, and the department didn't advise them one way or the other.

Cooper sheds light on what the group of MPs and senators was told by Global Affairs about their trip to China beginning on Jan. 5. 0:29

Trip planned for months

Cooper said the delegation's itinerary was set before China's arrest and detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. China has said both men are suspected of engaging in activities that undermined national security.

The men were taken into custody separately in early December, shortly after Canadian officials arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer for Huawei Technologies. The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that 13 Canadians have been detained in China since Meng's arrest and eight have since been released.

A Global Affairs Canada spokesperson told CBC News late last year that, at any given time, there are roughly 200 Canadians being held in custody in China. Most are detained over minor matters, the spokesperson added.

Meng was detained in Vancouver on Dec. 1 at the request of U.S. officials, who accuse Huawei — a leading global supplier of telecommunications equipment — of using a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment to Iran in violation of American sanctions. Meng was released on bail after a four-day hearing while she awaits U.S. extradition proceedings.

Canadian officials have expressed concern over the "arbitrary detention" of Kovrig and Spavor, and the U.S., Australia and the U.K. have joined calls for their release.

Chief prosecutor comments

China's chief prosecutor, Zhang Jun, told a Beijing briefing today that Kovrig and Spavor broke the country's laws  "without a doubt."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said today it is not "convenient" to discuss the charges against two Canadians detained in China, despite the assertion by the country's top prosecutor that they broke the law.

Chinese prosecutor Zhang Jun told a Beijing briefing Thursday that Kovrig and Spavor broke the country's laws "without a doubt." (Government of China)

Little is known about Kovrig's or Spavor's circumstances because they've each had only a single consular visit — by Canada's ambassador to China, John McCallum, last month.

"We call for the release of the Canadians," Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told reporters today when asked about China at a news conference on immigration.

With that demand, he was then quick to praise the relationship between the two countries.

"The relationship between Canada and China is strong … based on mutual interest and close people-to-people ties."

Cancelling could be worse

Cooper said Day's conversation with Global Affairs made it clear that cancelling the trip on short notice might be seen as a further escalation by the Chinese.

Cooper said he wasn't nervous about the trip, and instead voiced his uneasiness with the detentions.

"This is a serious issue, there's no question. I'm very concerned about the fact that these two Canadians have been detained."

The MP added he expects the topic of the detentions to come up during conversations with Chinese officials, but the main purpose of the meetings is to focus on the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

The department's website currently cautions Canadians to "exercise a high degree of caution" if visiting China. The department said that risk level has been in place since 2012.

Despite the current diplomatic climate, Paul Evans, a global affairs expert at the University of British Columbia, commended the Canadian officials for taking the trip.

"I think it's important that there be as many lines of contact with China now as possible," he said in an interview with Vassy Kapelos, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"It's not a time to cut things off, but to open up channels of communication. This is a rough patch in the Canada-China relationship and it's a rough patch that could last for a while."

Watch Evans' full interview on Power & Politics

'This is a real testing point in our relationship,' says UBC professor Paul Evans. 8:42

Being able to gauge the mood in Beijing will be valuable, Evans continued. But, he added, "I think caution is always appropriate."

With files from Katie Simpson, Evan Dyer and The Canadian Press

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