If Trudeau called about detainees, Chinese president wouldn't pick up: ex-ambassador
Former Canadian Ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques says he has “limited expectations” a Canadian delegation currently on the ground in China will successfully lead to the release of two detained Canadians.
During an interview on CTV’s Power Play on Tuesday, he said the group, which includes foreign affairs parliamentary secretary Rob Oliphant, won’t have a lot of power to make waves. But even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.
“Nobody in the Chinese government wants to meet with a Canadian minister or special envoy -- even if the prime minister were to phone [Chinese] President Xi Jinping, he would not take the call,” Saint-Jacques said.
Last week Chinese officials formally arrested the two Canadians who have been detained since December 2018, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on the suspicion of stealing state secrets for foreign power. The two men were detained after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver, following an extradition request from the United States.
Saint-Jacques even suggested that Xi would refuse a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the upcoming G20 meeting in Japan in June.
“But so far, the Chinese have been adamant that unless we promise to release [Meng], they don’t want to meet with anyone.”
Speaking with reporters after touring an aluminum plant in Quebec, Trudeau admitted Canada is in a "difficult situation with China" despite ongoing diplomatic efforts.
He said that Canadian officials continue to engage their Chinese counterparts, but criticized China for "making stronger moves" in an effort to "get its own way on the world stage.”
The prime minister said that Canada is still pushing for the release of the two men, who Trudeau described as being "arbitrarily detained for political reasons."
Trudeau vowed that Canada is "going to continue to hold strong… to stand up for our values and our principles."
There is a currently a parliamentary delegation in China discussing the detention of the two Canadians as part of their visit.
"The Canada-China Legislative Association is currently conducting a visit to China," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's press secretary Adam Austen told CTV News in a statement. He said that, while there, Oliphant "has raised Canada’s strong concerns regarding the arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor during his meetings with Chinese government officials."
While he said the delegation is a good step forward, Saint-Jacques said it’s best to temper expectations because “we’ll have to be realistic.” He added these talks don’t “replace government-to-government contact.”
He noted the group is going to Shanghai, not Beijing where President Xi is.
The same group conducted a bilateral meeting in China in January, when the detentions were also discussed. Saint-Jacques said this parliamentary delegation failed to lead to noticeable headway.
The former ambassador also said the “best outcome” to deal with the current situation would be calling a meeting of Dialogue of National Security and Rule of Law -- a high-powered set of discussions between the two countries.
The Chinese government had requested the creation of this venue back in 2016 to address high-profile cases like this, Saint-Jacques said.
Canada has been without a permanent ambassador to China since Trudeau fired former Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum in January over improper comments on Meng’s arrest.
In the interim, Jim Nickel, who had been the deputy head of mission at Canada’s embassy in Beijing, has been acting as Canada's representative in China.
Saint-Jacques said while it would be better to have a permanent Canadian ambassador to China, the Chinese would still have to essentially agree with the choice and would still insist on Canada freeing Meng before agreeing to meet.
Trudeau said that Canada has company in other Western nations and democracies around the world who are also concerned about decisions and positioning that China has taken lately and have pulled together to state that the way China is acting is "not something that we need to continue to allow."
Saint-Jacques agreed with Trudeau’s stronger stance and said it will help in rallying support from allies in remembering that “what we’re going through could happen to them as well.”
“We need to work with our partners to reinforce the multilateral system -- an environment where we have predictable rules that apply to everyone,” he said. “Otherwise, we could end up in a situation where countries like China or the United States would dictate the rules to everyone else.”
With files from CTV News' Michel Boyer