TORONTO -- Canada is no longer training with the Chinese military, the Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan told the House of Commons on Thursday, after Conservative defence critic James Bezan questioned why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would maintain such relations with China.

The issue came to a head following a report by the Globe and Mail that top officials at Global Affairs, concerned the Chinese government would view it as a retaliatory move over its detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, was “alarmed” that General Jonathan Vance cancelled winter military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army in 2019 at CFB Petawawa.

The news comes as Kovrig and Spavor marked their second anniversary in Chinese prison on what Canada and its Western allies say are unfounded espionage charges that followed Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant in December 2018.

“Our government always stands up for Canadians at home and abroad and this includes our relationship with China. But let me be very clear, we do not train with Chinese military,” said Minister Sajjan, adding that this initiative was originally put in place by the Conservative government under Stephen Harper.

“It was the previous government that actually signed a co-operation plan initiative in 2013 under Rob Nicholson, when he was the Minister of National Defence … because of the agreement they had signed, this is one of the reasons why we actually changed our approach because of the concerns the member outlined,” Sajjan said.

Bezan, who served as Parliamentary Secretary of National Defence under Nicholson at the time, said Canada was engaging in “hostage diplomacy” and that the Chinese government back then “is completely different to the Chinese government today.”

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole called the joint training exercise a “dangerous path for the Trudeau government to take" and called Canada's dealings with China a "dangerously naive approach [that] has put Canada and our citizens at risk.”

The Canadian Armed Forces have participated in various joint and regional military exercises for decades with some two dozen Pacific Rim countries. Specifically, Canada advanced its bilateral defence relationship with China through talks between senior military officials on both sides in March 2012 and June 2013. The Cooperation Plan Initiative, which would guide defence-related activities, was signed in Ottawa in August 2013.

China’s President Xi Jinping, who came into power in March 2013, has tightened his control over the country in recent years through mass detention and surveillance of its Muslim population in Xinjiang, a crackdown on activism, heavy Internet censorship, consolidation of power and removal of presidential term limits. He has also taken a more assertive and harder-line approach to foreign affairs and defending China’s interests.

Meng’s arrest, and the subsequent arrest of Kovrig and Spavor shortly after, soured relations between Canada and China. Trudeau has spoken to U.S. president-elect Joe Biden about the situation, but has not said whether Biden might revisit the Justice Department’s efforts to extradite Meng. Should the U.S. withdraw its charges against Meng, it could give China a reason to release Kovrig and Spavor.

“We will always stand up for Canadians who are arbitrarily detained. This is one of the reasons why we actually stopped our training with the Chinese,” Sajjan said.

With files from The Canadian Press