TORONTO -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is resisting calls to free Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in order to secure the release of two Canadians detained in China, saying doing so would put far more Canadians in danger.

"It is obvious that the first priority of any government is to protect its citizens," Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday.

"If countries around the world, including China, realize that by arbitrarily arresting random Canadians, they can get what they want out of Canada politically – well, that makes an awful lot of Canadians who travel around the world vulnerable to that kind of pressure."

Trudeau made his remarks one day after a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said that Canada halting its attempt to extradite Meng could affect the fates of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

That statement, which is contained in an English-language transcript of a press briefing dated Wednesday, is a departure from China's long-standing position that the arrests of the two Canadians were not connected to Canada's arrest of Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei who has been under house arrest in Vancouver for the past 18 months. Canada is attempting to extradite her to the U.S., where she is accused of violating sanctions against Iran.

Kovrig and Spavor were arrested separately in the days following Meng's arrest. Both men had been held in China without charges from December 2018 until last week, when they were formally charged with espionage.

Responding to a question about whether releasing Meng would compromise the integrity of Canada's justice system, China foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian noted that Canada's system allows for the extradition process to be stopped at any point.

"Such options are within the rule of law and could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians," he said, according to the transcript.

"Once again we urge the Canadian side to earnestly respect the spirit of the rule of law, treat China's solemn position and concerns seriously, stop political manipulation, immediately release Ms. Meng and ensure her safe return to China."

The Chinese government's latest call for Canada to release Meng was similar to the one issued Wednesday by a group of prominent former Canadian politicians and diplomats.

The group of 19 wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying that "the time is past due" for Canada to halt Meng's extradition process in order to get "the two Michaels" released.

"We believe [Kovrig and Spavor] will remain in their Chinese prison cells until Meng is free to return to China," they wrote in the letter, which was obtained by CTV News.

Signatories to the letter include former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, former Conservative foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and former Canadian ambassadors to the United States and United Nations, among others.

The group said releasing Meng would not only free Kovrig and Spavor from "grave risk" and the high likelihood of being convicted, but also allow Canada to re-establish a policy regarding China free of the current dispute. They also suggested that continuing the extradition process could end up encouraging China to take further actions against Canada.

"Resisting China's pressure is no guarantee that it will never be applied again in the future," they said.

"Indeed, if Canada resists the pressure arising from the detention of the Two Michaels, China might well decide that next time it will need to escalate by detaining more than two Canadians."

Trudeau said he "deeply disagree[d]" with the group, arguing that giving in to China would make future arrests of Canadians more likely than the scenario outlined in the letter.

"The idea of solving a short-term situation by creating a precedent that demonstrates to China that all they or another country has to do is randomly arrest a handful of Canadians to put political pressure on a government to do what [they] want … would endanger the millions of Canadians who live and travel overseas every single year," he said.

"We cannot allow political pressures or random arrests of Canadian citizens to influence the functioning of our justice system."

Responding to Trudeau’s reaction to the letter, Axworthy said the prime minister’s argument about setting a dangerous precedent is flawed.

"There’s no evidence to back up that statement," he said during an interview on CTV’s Power Play on Thursday. "I spent close to five years in foreign affairs, was involved in a number of similar kinds of issues, and I think each case is exceptional, it’s its own circumstance."

He repeated that it’s the federal government’s priority to look at all available options to ensure the safety of Canadians detained abroad.

"The fact that we’ve kind of elevated this issue of extradition into some kind of high principled effort really ignores the face that you’ve got two Canadians in a sort of prison condition, facing espionage charges that will result in very severe penalties," said Axworthy

Richard Fadden, former CSIS Director and national security adviser to the prime minister takes a different stance, "strongly" opposing the 19 signatories.

He agrees with the prime minister that while securing the release of Spavor and Kovrig is a top concern, there are other priorities in the national interest.

"If we give into this kind of bullying, this will be registered in Beijing and I think it will endanger Canadians and Canadian economic interest," he said. "There are other interests at play, and the prime minister is being paid to balance these interests."