Foreign affairs minister wants a new 'framework' on Canada-China relations

Canada can no longer do business as usual with China. That's the new foreign minister's take, exactly one year after the arrest of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Sunday is the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne attends the third plenary session of the G20 foreign ministers' meeting in Nagoya, Japan, on Nov. 23. He is reviewing Canada's relationship with China. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada can no longer do business as usual with China. That's the new foreign minister's take, exactly one year after the arrest of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

In an exclusive interview with Radio-Canada, François-Philippe Champagne said he recognizes that the situation is serious.

"I think we have arrived at a critical moment, strategically, where my role is to bring the parties around the table," he said in French.

China responded with anger to Meng Wanzhou's arrest in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018, following an extradition request from the United States. Days later, China detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor; they have been in prison for almost a year now. Canadian meat exporters were blocked from shipping to China from June to November, while canola producers have still not regained access to the Chinese market.

It's a paradigm shift that is forcing the Canadian government to re-evaluate its trade and diplomatic relations with China.

"I think we have to establish, and that will be my responsibility, with Canadian civil society, with business people ... a framework in which we can have a relationship with China where the interests of Canada stand out, where the fundamental principles, the values ​​will be present," Champagne said. However, he did not specify whether he wants to harden the tone.

Champagne insists the release of the two Canadians remains his top priority. He said he quickly raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart at a recent G20 summit of foreign ministers.

"Eighteen hours, I think, after my swearing in, I was already meeting my Chinese counterpart for over an hour. I was glad that the Chinese minister agreed to meet me."

Diversification needed

In Canada, calls have multiplied in the last year for Canada to change its approach with the Asian superpower. The former ambassador to Beijing, Guy Saint-Jacques, believes that the decisions made by the communist regime leave no other choice for Canada.

"Now that we have seen what I call the dark side of China, we have to admit that it is a partner who is not reliable, who can play hard," he says.

China may be a necessary market with over a billion consumers, but Canada would benefit from diversifying its interests, according to the former ambassador.

"By taking better advantage, for example, of the free trade agreements that have been signed elsewhere in Asia and I think that, from that perspective, there is a lot of effort to be made," Saint-Jacques says.

The minister of foreign affairs agrees.

"For me diversification is important, because that's when you become less dependent on a market," Champagne said.

During the trade dispute, pork producers in Quebec estimate they lost nearly $120 million.

About 40 per cent of Canadian canola products are normally sold in China, a market worth $2.7 billion in 2018, according to the Canola Council of Canada.

Stronger sanctions?

The treatment of Kovrig and Spavor is particularly concerning to Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a China expert and researcher emeritus at universities in Ottawa and Alberta. She says time is running out to help them before they go to trial.

"Once they are charged, they may end up in jail for a long time, a long trial, a lengthy sentence, and so on," she warned.

McCuaig-Johnston is arguing for tougher sanctions against the Chinese regime.

"Canada could deny visas to top Chinese leaders and even seize or freeze their assets in the country," she suggests.

The Chinese government maintains that nothing will change until Meng is released. Her extradition trial to the United States is scheduled for January in Vancouver.

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