Trudeau touches down in South Korea for talks on economic security, China interference

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two of his top cabinet ministers have touched down in Seoul, South Korea, hoping to make headway on an economic insurance policy.

Visit comes ahead of G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan

Trudeau walks down a red carpet with Korean official
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is escorted by South Korea's Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Kim Gunn upon his arrival at the Seoul airport in Seongnam, South Korea, on Tuesday. (AP/Lee Jin-man)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two of his top cabinet ministers have touched down in Seoul, South Korea, hoping to make headway on an economic insurance policy.

The bilateral visit marks the launch of a high-level dialogue with the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on economic security, among other things. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne will hold high-level talks with their Korean counterparts. Both Trudeau and Champagne will also meet with top business and industry leaders in key economic sectors.

It remains to be seen whether Trudeau will talk with top executives of South Korean-owned LG to discuss last week's announcement by the company and its partner Stellantis that it was looking at "contingency plans" for its NextStar Energy investment in Windsor, Ont. 

The partnership halted construction work on the massive battery plant on Monday, looking for — in the view of analysts — better financial support from the Canadian government. 

Champagne said he hopes to speak with the head of LG at a state dinner hosted by South Korea's president and underlined that negotiations are still ongoing.

"I negotiate with these guys every day," he said. "The CEO calls me every day, they text me every day. There's negotiation, that's fair. But my job and our job is to fight for Canadians. That's what I'm paid for — it's to fight for Canadians, to fight for the public interest."

Diversifying supply chains post-pandemic and resisting economic coercion are among the major topics that Group of Seven (G7) leaders will discuss this weekend when they convene in Hiroshima, Japan.

Canada is onside with whatever the leaders decide and has no problem publicly singling out China as a being behind attempts at economic bullying as it did in last fall's Indo-Pacific Strategy, said Joly. 

"We have gone through economic coercion, particularly during the two Michaels," she said in reference to the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. "We've learned from that experience and we will make sure that we defend our national interests at all times."

What takes place bilaterally in Seoul this week and then later among the world leaders is significant for Canada and amounts to an economic insurance policy where nations look out for one another, said a foreign policy expert.

"We've been subjected to Chinese coercion very recently, and various, different kinds of Chinese interference," said Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau.

"And so for Canada, having friends, and having arrangements with our friends to operate together to resist coercion, is extremely important."

China's 'economic coercion'

In the wake of the 2018 arrest of Huawei business executive Meng Wanzhou, at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice, China retaliated with a series of import bans, notably on canola and pork, and seized two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. In trying to secure their release, Canada mounted a diplomatic effort to rally other countries to resist arbitrary detention. 

Paris said leading countries to push back against economic bullying is in the same league, because they're "working together to try to deter China from taking actions that target specific countries, in effect saying, 'We will work together to try and resist these efforts.'"

A published report by Reuters said G7 countries will issue a joint statement naming China and its use of "economic coercion" this weekend.

The statement will be paired with a broader written proposal on how the seven advanced economies will work together to counter the overall problem, regardless of the country involved. The news agency quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions.

Gordon Houlden, a China expert at the University of Alberta, said singling out China will likely further strain relations between Beijing and Washington.

"I think that the risk of trade being used as a weapon is increasing," said Houlden.

'If there was a Chinese diplomat sitting here beside me, I'm sure he or she would pipe up and say, 'What about [U.S.] restrictions on [the export of] high-tech chips [to China], et cetera. Isn't that politically generated economic coercion?'"

The notion that Beijing would be singled out by G7 allies drew a sharp response from China Daily, the English-language daily publication owned by the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party.

It accused Washington of trying to manipulate the discussion among G7 leaders, and the issue was a demonstration of "how brazenly it imposes itself on its allies."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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