Canada’s Minister of Small Business and Export Promotions says that the two Canadians detained in China — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — will be “top of mind” for her and her team as they prepare to attend the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China early next week.
“Of course we are concerned. At every opportunity, we will always stand up for Canadians,” said Minister Mary Ng, in a phone interview with the Financial Post Friday afternoon, just hours after receiving a travel visa that authorizes her to visit China for the event.
“There’s a Chinese proverb I like to use that might be relevant here — a high mountain can upstand winds and storms. So the high mountain is the relationship between Canada and China, and yes we have some stuff to weather, but we have a complex relationship and I’m confident we will be able to pursue the interests of Canadians and Canadian companies in the Asia Pacific region going forward,” she said.
Diplomatic relations between China and Canada have been strained since Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd in December at the request of the United States. Meng, whose father is the chief executive of the Chinese telecom giant, remains under house arrest in Vancouver as she awaits a potential extradition to the U.S. for violation of sanctions.
In a move widely interpreted as retaliatory, China detained and subsequently imprisoned Kovrig and Spavor within weeks of each other for allegedly stealing state secrets.
The spat has played itself out in trade relations between the two countries as well, with China using its influence as the world’s second largest economy to place a blanket ban this week on exports of all meat products from Canada — a move that severely impacts Canadian pork farmers, given that China is Canada’s third biggest export market for pork.
When specifically asked, Ng did not confirm or deny that she would be meeting senior Chinese government officials during a pitstop in Beijing, before the Forum. “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to listen to the Canadian businesses that are in China so that we are continuously doing the work that we need to do to support their success,” Ng said.
Ng also declined to say if she would specifically bring up the situations of both Kovrig and Spavor during any potential meetings with the Chinese.
Prime Minister Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of whom are currently attending the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, sat side by side during the Leaders Working Lunch, but appeared to not converse with each other, according to news reports. But the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed in a statement Friday morning that Trudeau had “brief, constructive interactions” with Xi on the first day of the summit.
A high mountain can upstand winds and storms. So the high mountain is the relationship between Canada and China
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters that Canada is very open to having a dialogue with China at the summit. Chinese officials recently indicated they have no interest in communicating with senior members of the Canadian government until they abandon America’s extradition request for Meng.
When asked if she received directions from the Prime Minister or his team on engaging in any kind of discussion with senior Chinese government officials if the opportunity arose, Ng — who has visited China three times in the past as a cabinet minister — was evasive, merely reiterating that she would “always stand up” for Canadians.
Recently, Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to Freeland expressed his disappointment that Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil did not mention Kovrig and Spavor during a meeting with outgoing Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye.
China is Canada’s second largest trading partner after the U.S. — with exports to China rising 16 per cent in April compared to the previous year. Ng said that in light of the trade tensions between Canada and the U.S., as well as Canada and China, her department has been working “very closely” with Jim Carr, Minister of International Trade Diversification, in order to figure out “trade diversification solutions” for small and medium-sized Canadian businesses that are export-focused.
Ng will be meeting with a number of Canadian businesses with operations in China during her brief stop in Beijing on the way to the forum. These include Teck Resources air-quality monitoring company Kaiterra, and the Sunrise Group, a multinational in logistics, agri-food and immigration.
“This trip is something that we have been planning for a while. I attended the Forum last year, and I believe that we can do many things here to advance Canadian business interests in this region, so I’m very much looking forward to having those conversations and doing that,” Ng said.
Canadian delegates that will accompany Ng on the trip include Sarah Tiet, the chief executive of invoicing company OPTY Solutions, Sam Kazemeini, the President of ERS Fuel, a fuel transportation and storage company as well as Hubert Lau, President and CEO of third-party food traceability firm TrustBix.