The coronavirus crisis is driving a sudden thaw in Canada-China relations

Canada's response to the deadly novel coronavirus outbreak is winning unusual praise in China — a development that federal government sources here say is part of a broader re-engagement strategy aimed at repairing strained relations between the two countries.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne meets with Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of China, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's response to the deadly novel coronavirus outbreak is winning unusual praise in China — a development that federal government sources here say is part of a broader re-engagement strategy aimed at repairing strained relations between the two countries.

News reports in Chinese state-run media, official government statements and messages posted by Chinese citizens online all suggest a warming trend in the Canada-China relationship — a relationship that's been very tense since the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in 2018.

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi applauded Canada for responding to China's request for medical equipment, such as face masks and protective gear.

"On behalf of the people of China, we extend our appreciations. Thank you," Wang told his Canadian counterpart François-Philippe Champagne at the Munich Security Conference. "This is a special relationship."

His remarks mark a notable shift in tone since January by the ruling Communist Party, and it's all the more remarkable given the overt animosity in the bilateral relationship over the past 14 months.

Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained by Chinese officials just days after Meng's arrest; their detention is widely viewed as an act of retaliation for the arrest of the telecommunications executive on an extradition request from the United States. Another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, was given a death sentence in January 2019 after having been previously sentenced to prison for drug smuggling. China also has blocked imports of Canadian agricultural products.

Government sources in this country tell CBC News that the so-called public health diplomacy by Canada has resulted in a new climate of diplomatic détente — and that relations with China are better now than they have been since at least 2018.

Canada has sent 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment, such as clothing, face shields, masks, goggles and gloves, to China since February 4, 2020. (Global Affairs Canada)

The coronavirus outbreak seems to be driving the sudden thaw. Canada needed Chinese approval to send a plane to the Chinese city of Wuhan to collect Canadians there who asked for help to leave. China, meanwhile, needed the international community's help to grapple with the outbreak.

Global Affairs Canada said it had shipped about 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China this month, including clothing, face shields, masks, goggles and gloves. Ottawa also agreed to provide $2 million to the World Health Organization (WHO) to help vulnerable countries prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak beyond China.

Renowned Canadian epidemiologist Bruce Aylward recently made his way to China to lead a team of WHO experts to study the origin of the virus and the severity of the disease.

"This is Canada. And when in (times of) need, we want to be there and be able to provide assistance to the extent we can," Champagne said this week.

That assistance, sources said, presented new opportunities for Ottawa to start repairing its relationship with China.

"We are engaging with each other. I think every time you have a chance to have a dialogue it's something positive," said Champagne, who added he raises the plight of the Canadian detainees in every discussion with Chinese officials.

Friday's meeting marked the second time in two weeks the Canadian and Chinese foreign affairs ministers spoke with each other. Canada and China didn't have a single ministerial-level meeting for eight months following Meng's arrest.

The embassy's charm offensive

Despite Canada's decision to scale down its consular operations in China as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the Canadian embassy in Beijing has been ramping up its outreach efforts on social media.

More than 2.3 million people follow the embassy's page on Weibo, China's most popular social media platform.

One widely-shared post from the embassy this month showed a photo of Canadian aid headed for Wuhan. Another cited Canada's decision not to impose a travel ban on people coming from China.

The U.S., Australia and some European nations have enacted strict border controls, banning the entry of foreigners who travelled to China in the past 14 days. Canada says its approach is in line with the World Health Organization's guidelines related to "inappropriate restrictions to travel and trade."

Dominic Barton, Canada's ambassador to China, sends a message of support to the people of China on the Weibo page of the Canadian embassy in Beijing. (The Embassy of Canada to China/Weibo)

Canada's newly-appointed Ambassador to China Dominic Barton delivered one recent embassy video message in Mandarin, urging the citizens of Wuhan to "stay strong."

On Weibo, Chinese citizens praised Canada's actions. "China-Canada friendship lasts forever!" wrote one.

"Thank you! We will never forget the people who helped us when our country was in trouble," says another online comment.

Those responses are a far cry from the comments the embassy's Weibo page was getting just a month ago, when many Chinese were using it as a platform to vent their feelings about Canada's troubled relations with China.

An anchor on China's state-owned television broadcaster CCTV delivers a story about Canada's help in combating the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. (CCTV)

Canada's recent efforts have also attracted glowing headlines in state-owned media, and even in official Beijing.

"Our heartfelt thanks go to Canada for its support and assistance in China's fight against the epidemic," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a briefing this week.

Wenran Jiang, an adjunct professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, said that Canada's recent efforts have been "extremely well received" in China.

"I think Chinese people – even Chinese officials – will probably have a second look on whether in the past year-plus they have been treating Canada too harsh, whether [they] should probably reconsider the [Kovrig and Spavor] cases," Jiang predicted.

No one is suggesting the more complex outstanding issues between Canada and China will be easily repaired, or that Spavor and Kovrig will be freed tomorrow. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took an optimistic line this week.

"Yes, we are having challenges with China," Trudeau said Friday in Munich, Germany, where he was attending an international security conference.

"In this recent coronavirus challenge and issue, Canada has been there to send medical supplies to China, to be supportive, to work with them and the WHO, to try and help where we can in resolving this.

"So just because you have a serious disagreement on an issue that may be extremely important to you and to Canadians, it can't prevent you from continuing to talk and try to solve other things at the same time. There are far too many aspects to global relationships to not try and engage in a constructive way."