The House

Looking back on a 'difficult year' of tensions with China

The downward spiral of Canada's relationship with China started one year ago — and experts say there's still a lot to do to get it back on track.
Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou is shown in Vancouver on Dec. 12. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The downward spiral of Canada's relationship with China started one year ago — and experts say there's still a lot to do to get it back on track.

"It's been a difficult year and probably the worst I've seen the relationship since I started observing China in 1976," Susan Gregson, an expert on Canada-China relations at the University of Ottawa, told CBC's The House.

On December 1, 2018, one of Chinese tech giant Huawei's top executives was arrested in Vancouver on an extradition request from the United States.

Meng Wanzhou's arrest was the first in a series of breakdown moments between Canada and China. Days later, two Canadians were arrested in China, where they remain imprisoned. The Liberal government fired its ambassador to China after he told the Chinese he thought the extradition could be fought. In the spring, China cancelled imports of Canadian agricultural products like canola, beef and pork.

China has never admitted their countermeasures were in response to Meng's arrest. Gregson said that's all part of the plan. 

"I've had recent conversations with current and former Chinese officials and they insist that this is the case," she said. "If we accuse them of hostage diplomacy, which we have done, they'll say, 'Well no, Canada started this.'"

On the one-year anniversary of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Vancouver, Chris Hall speaks with Alykhan Velshi, vice-president of corporate affairs for Huawei Technologies Canada. 9:12

The beginning of the breakdown involved Huawei — but the Canadian arm of that company says it was wrongfully caught up in a diplomatic spat.

"We sell network equipment to telecom providers and so obviously we've been dragged into this this dispute," Alykhan Velshi, vice-president of corporate affairs for Huawei Canada, told host Chris Hall.

"But ultimately these are challenges that can only be solved by governments and diplomats working together, not by telecom executives." 

Meng Wanzhou, who is out on bail and remains under partial house arrest, wears an electronic monitoring bracelet as she leaves her home to attend a court hearing. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Huawei is at the centre of another big controversy in Canada right now — over whether the tech giant should be permitted to join its next-generation 5G wireless network. Experts have warned giving the company access could result in hacking and espionage by the Chinese government.

Canada's Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners are weighing the same question. The U.S., one of those partners, recently warned Canada that if it allows Huawei into 5G, it could affect how much intelligence Washington shares with Ottawa.

Velshi admitted the negative attention has hurt Huawei's business in Canada.

"We will meet any test that the government of Canada imposes on us, any standard, and we would welcome that."

Velshi worked in Stephen Harper's former Conservative government before joining Huawei. Harper was highly critical of China's human rights record. When asked how he squared his position then with his job now, Velshi said Canada can't afford to "wall itself off to every country in the world."

"We are a trading country and we have to deal with with the rest of the world," he said.

On the one-year anniversary of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Vancouver, Chris Hall speaks with Susan Gregson, retired Canadian diplomat, China expert and senior fellow at the University of Ottawa. 7:19

Gregson said pursuing trade and protecting human rights doesn't have to amount to an either-or choice for Canada.

"I think a lot of times we hear about human rights and trade as being sort of binary. You know, we either can trade with China or raise our concerns with human rights. And I think the relationship is much more complex than that," she said.

"Diplomacy has is a long game. And that's the game we need to play."

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