Former Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said high-level officials, potentially including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, should engage with China over the escalating dispute that has involved the detention of at least two Canadians.

“There has to be engagement at the highest level, right up to and potentially including the prime minister if things continue to escalate,” MacKay told CTV’s Beverly Thomson on Power Play Friday.

“China very much stands on protocol and puts a great deal of weight on who is making the request.”

The request in question would be to see the release of the two Canadians detained in China: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Tensions between Canada and China have been escalating since Canada’s December arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, a move undertaken at the behest of the United States. China went on to detain Kovrig and Spavor in an apparent retaliation.

A total of 13 Canadians have been detained since Meng’s arrest, although eight have since been released.

Easing the tensions would not only be for the purpose of reducing risk to Canadian citizens, according to MacKay, but is also of key importance to the Canadian economy.

“China’s a very large and substantive trading partner and we have to try to cool the temperature now and get back to some semblance of normal relations with this important partner,” he said.

China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner, making up roughly 4.3 per cent of total Canadian exports totaling $18.2 billion in 2017.

“Canada has a lot at risk, including the risk to our citizens [and] to our economy,” MacKay said.

MacKay: Canada-China Trade isn’t happening

Canada had been exploring the possibility of a trade deal with China, but MacKay said those aspirations should be shelved for the time being.

“I think that we are in a completely different place than we were just a year ago when it comes to our aspirations for China,” MacKay said.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any major improvements in trade relations or trade at any secular level and that’s unfortunate, but we need to be realistic about where we are at this moment in time.”

The prospect had seemed doable as recently as mid-November, when International Trade Minister Jim Carr was in Beijing hoping to talk trade and strike smaller sector-by-sector agreements.

A delegation of Canadian senators and low-level MPs also headed to China Friday with the hopes of establishing people-to-people ties with the country and deepening the Canada-China trading relationship -- a hope which, according to MacKay, is futile.

“I think we have to take a bit of an appetizer suppressant on that front,” he said.

Upgrading the travel advisory

The former foreign affairs minister also said Canada should follow suit with the United States and issue a travel warning for Canadians heading to the country.

“I think there is undeniably a greater risk factor now for certain Canadians who are there and as we've seen with Mr. Korvig, Mr. [Spavor], that Canadians can be detained,” MacKay said.

MacKay said China’s government does not respect the rule of law nor do they have due process. He also pointed to the country’s failure to respect human rights during consular visits as a cause for Canadians to travel to China with increased caution.

“Canadians should be made aware of that and I believe it did warrant an upgraded and very cautionary note on the travel advisory,” he said.