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Chris Hall: Champagne is still treading carefully on China

The China file is back on the desk of Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne. Not that it ever wandered very far.

Relations between the two countries have been in a deep freeze ever since the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant back in December, 2018.

The freeze turned glacial when China arrested two Canadians in a move the Canadian government called an act of retaliation for its decision to live up to Canada’s commitment to the rule of law.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou arrives at B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Jan. 23, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“The release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remains my absolute priority,” Champagne said in a wide-ranging interview airing Saturday on CBC’s The House. The conversation covered relations with China, how the World Health Organization responded to the coronavirus outbreak, the future of Hong Kong and Canada’s bid for one of the rotating seats open next year on the United Nations Security Council.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne joins Chris Hall to discuss China’s move to end the” one country, two systems” for Hong Kong and Canada’s still icy diplomacy with China. 9:37

It’s a statement the foreign affairs minister has made before in describing efforts to not only win the men’s release but to regain consular access that was cut off in recent months because of the pandemic.

Could Meng Wanzhou be free in a week?

Requests for virtual visits have been denied. Calls from allies for their release have been ignored.

But there could be some movement soon. Next week, B.C.’s Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes is expected to rule on the question of “double criminality” — on whether the accusations against Meng (that she defrauded banks by lying about her company’s control of a subsidiary suspected of violating American sanctions against Iran) amount to a criminal offence in Canada. If Meng wins the day, she might be free to leave Canada.

Champagne won’t say what the Trudeau government will do if that happens. Might it launch an appeal that would keep Meng here for the time being? Or would she be on the first plane back to China, giving Beijing a reason to release the two Canadians?

“What I’m saying is that you cannot link these cases,” Champagne said. “You know, in 2020, arbitrary detention is not a tool of diplomacy. This is damaging China’s reputation around the world.”

Beijing goes on the offensive

Maybe that’s true. But China’s president Xi Jinping seems unmoved by international condemnation. This week, his government proposed a new security law for Hong Hong that would allow Chinese state police to act against ongoing pro-democracy protests in the city.

The move was denounced almost immediately by Britain and the United States as amounting to a death sentence for Hong Kong’s autonomy, and for the one-country-two-systems commitment made by the Chinese when the city reverted to its rule.

An anti-extradition bill protester is detained by riot police during skirmishes between the police and protesters outside Mong Kok police station on Sept. 2, 2019 in Hong Kong. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Champagne said Canada shares those concerns.

“I’ve been in contact with my colleagues around the world and we’re obviously very opposed to any change to the one country, two systems,” he told The House. “You know, we have a vested interest what is going on in Hong Kong. We have more than 300,000 Canadians living (there) … and we are consulting now with our international colleagues.”

Critics, including the opposition Conservatives, accused the Trudeau government of being too worried about offending China in the past year and half. Party leader Andrew Scheer and others have demanded that Canada support Taiwan’s entry into the World Health Organization over Beijing’s opposition, and have accused the government of being too quick to accept China’s assurances that it acted immediately to inform other countries about the novel coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

“We have been calling for the government to pull out of the Asian Infrastructure Bank, to step up inspections of Chinese exports into Canada,” Scheer said again this week, “and [to] show the People’s Republic of China that there are consequences for illegally detaining two Canadians and pushing Canada around. Justin Trudeau has refused to do that.”

Watch: Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accuses government of rolling over for China

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer spoke to reporters on Parliament Hill on Tuesday. 1:27

‘Eyes wide open’

Others have criticized Canada’s muted response to Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.

Champagne insists the government is engaging China with “eyes wide open” and endorsed the independent inquiry in a phone call with Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne the very night it was announced.

“But what we are saying is that the time needs to be right. This is not the time to undermine the credibility of the World Health Organization,” he said. “We said at the appropriate time there needs to be hard questions about leadership, financing and the alert system.”

Champagne also is taking a larger role in Canada’s campaign for one of the two rotating seats on the UN Security Council. The vote is going ahead next month despite the pandemic. Norway and Ireland are also competing for a place in the organization’s inner circle.

With little time remaining to campaign, Champagne and the prime minister have been calling leaders in Africa and elsewhere to argue that Canada’s memberships in the G7 and other international institutions give this country more clout than its rivals.

“One of the things that makes Canada so special is the opportunity we have to bring their message to the G7, the G20, la Francophonie, the Commonwealth and NATO,” Champagne said. “Making sure their voices are heard, amplifying their voices and telling them a transatlantic partner like Canada on the security council would make a difference.”

Champagne will find out next month whether that pitch made any difference.

Also on this week’s episode of The House:

  • CBC senior reporter Salimah Shivji outlines the federal government’s pitch to provinces and territories to help them increase COVID-19  testing and contact tracing, and who’s on board.
  • Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a leading infectious diseases specialist, explains Canada’s role in identifying effective treatments to reduce the symptoms and severity of COVID-19 infections.
  • Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, president of the UN General Assembly and a diplomat from Nigeria, highlights some of the challenges facing the international community as the United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary.
  • Three MPs weigh in on whether it’s time for the House of Commons to resume its normal routines.

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