Trudeau, Freeland held 19 high-level international talks with allies on China dispute

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have held 19 high-level discussions with foreign heads of government, ministers and diplomats in an effort to rally support for several Canadians now being held by China.

'China is losing an enormous amount of soft power in behaving the way it does'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have been working the phones in an effort to get Canada's allies on side in Ottawa's dispute with China. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have held 19 high-level discussions with foreign heads of government, ministers and diplomats in an effort to rally support for several Canadians being held by China.

According to the Liberal government, Trudeau held nine calls, including conversations with U.S. President Donald Trump, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk.

Freeland's diplomatic outreach included 11 conversations with everyone from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to the foreign ministers of Australia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

Those efforts, the Prime Minister's Office said, have resulted in 11 public statements of support from Australia, the EU, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the U.S., the Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Spain.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's high-level discussions
United States of America President Donald Trump
European Union President of the European Council Donald Tusk
Finland President Sauli Niinistö
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
Argentina President Mauricio Macri
Singapore  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres
Germany  Chancellor Angela Merkel

The federal government's approach — to gather allies behind its calls to have China back down by putting public pressure on China — is a tactic the Trudeau government has employed since the diplomatic dispute with the superpower broke out last month.

Tensions emerged in early December when Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese technology giant Huawei, on an extradition request issued by the United States. The U.S. alleges Meng is guilty of violating international sanctions against Iran through a Huawei subsidiary called Skycom.

Shortly after Meng's arrest China arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on leave who is working for a non-governmental organization in China, and Michael Spavor, a business consultant who arranges trips to North Korea.

Earlier this month, a Chinese court retried Canadian Robert Schellenberg for his role in the smuggling of 222 kilograms of methamphetamines from China to Australia in 2014. Schellenberg had previously been found guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced to a 15-year jail term. At the retrial he was sentenced to death.

Following that ruling, Trudeau accused Beijing of arbitrarily using the death penalty and called world leaders to solicit their support. Monday 140 former diplomats and academics penned a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping urging China to release Kovrig and Spavor to avoid harming China's relations around the world.

Speaking Monday in Ottawa, Trudeau showed no sign he was planning on changing his tactics as he negotiates Canada's way through this diplomatic dispute.

"Canada will always stand up for the rule of law and we will always encourage friends, allies and thoughtful people around the world to point out that Canada stands up for the rule of law and all countries should stand up for the rule of law," Trudeau said.

"It's a very clear principle," he said. "It has served us well as a planet over the past decades, that we have systems of justice that are independent from political interference and Canada will always defend that."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's diplomatic push
Mike Pompeo U.S. Secretary of State
Jeremy Hunt U.K. Foreign Secretary
Heiko Maas Foreign Minister of Germany
Lu Shaye Ambassador of China to Canada
Christine Lagarde President of the International Monetary Fund
Tharman Shanmugaratnam Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
Marise Payne Foreign Minister of Australia
Tomas Petricek Foreign Minister of Czech Republic
Linas Likevicius Foreign Minister of Lithuania
Robert Malley President and CEO of the International Crisis Group (Kovrig's employer)
Federica Mogherini High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs

But it remains unclear if the tactic of publicly rebuking China through the Canadian government, its allies and others will achieve the kind of result Ottawa wants. 

"I think what would be most effective are the quiet, backdoor channels — not in-your-face big statements," said Lynette Ong, an associate professor, Department of Political Science and Asian Institute, at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

"The whole point of the Chinese authorities getting into all of these detentions is to look strong, so even though we want them to give in, we don't want [China] to ... lose face, and that is not about capitulating to China, it is about being smart with our strategy," she said.

Others are unsure taking the dispute behind closed doors is likely to secure the release of Kovrig and Spavor.

'China is making a big mistake'

"I think that this idea that anything can be solved through backdoor channels, and to be polite in public in the face of extremely rude behaviour of the Chinese, is really ridiculous," said André Laliberté, a professor with a focus on China and comparative politics in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.

"I think that if Germany and other important countries start to also plead for that issue, it would have an effect, I would hope," he said. "I think that China is losing an enormous amount of soft power in behaving the way it does. It's actually quite puzzling why the government would behave that way."

Stephen Saideman, Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, told CBC he doesn't think the letter with its 140 signatures or the public statements by allies are likely to secure the result Canada wants. But, he doesn't think it will harm Canada's case either.

"I think China is making a big mistake in all of this. But I am not sure that China is going to respond to whatever pressure it is going to get from the world, in part, because they have these internal processes that we are really not all that sure of," Saideman said.


  • An earlier version of this story said the government had made 20 high-level calls about the detainees in China. In fact, the government has made 19 calls.
    Jan 21, 2019 9:30 PM ET