Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says years of “appeasement” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to China means Canada lacks enough leverage to prevent Canadian citizens from being detained in an escalating case of political retribution over the arrest of a senior Chinese business leader.
Yet Scheer isn’t advocating the government issue travel alerts, nor is he advising his own party members not to go to China.
“This situation demonstrates that Justin Trudeau’s naïve approach to relations with China isn’t working,” Scheer said to reporters in Ottawa on Thursday as parliamentarians prepared to depart for the winter break.
“We now find ourselves in a situation where we have Canadian citizens on foreign soil detained and a government that has pursued a policy of appeasement, putting us in a situation where we don’t have leverage.”
Since Monday, two Canadian men have been detained by Chinese authorities on suspicions of “endangering national security.”
Michael Kovrig, the first to be detained, is a Canadian government employee who works for Global Affairs Canada and who was on leave doing work for an NGO in Hong Kong when he visited Beijing and was arrested.
Because he was on leave, he did not have diplomatic immunity.
Michael Spavor is the founder of a non-profit that brings people on trips to North Korea and that organized the Dennis Rodman visits in 2013 and 2014.
He phoned Canadian officials from an airport in China where he said he was being questioned earlier this week, but consular officials haven’t been able to make contact since then.
The status of both men is unknown.
Their detentions come after Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, CFO of the Chinese technology firm Huawei, on Dec. 1 in Vancouver at the behest of American authorities who allege the company she helps run has been skirting U.S. sanctions on Iran. Meng denies the allegations.
Chinese sabre-rattling in the weeks since has escalated, prompting Canadian officials at the embassy in Beijing to flag concerning emails from the Chinese public to local authorities and remind them that China is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on its soil.
As a result, security around the Canadian embassy has been increased.
Warnings have also gone out to Canadian diplomats, advising them to bear in mind the need for extra precaution when serving in China.
The travel advisory posted online for the Canadian public, however, has not been changed as a result of the increasing tensions.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland faced questions about why the current advisory, which is at the second of four possible levels of escalating seriousness, does not advise Canadians against travelling to China, but instead urges only that Canadians travelling there “exercise a high degree of caution.”
She said people should take the current advisory warning seriously but would not say whether a change is being considered.
Scheer also did not push for that to change on Thursday, noting he does not have all the information that is being shared with Freeland about the case.
“When the government makes an official advisory to avoid travel or take extra precautions, those are done with consultations with national security advisors and the highest amount of information,” he said. “I will let the Minister of Foreign Affairs decide on that issue. She has that information.”
He was also asked whether he would go to China himself right now and said only that he currently has no plans to go.
Scheer also said he would not suggest others should change their plans.
“We have to see where the situation goes and we are monitoring that,” he said, adding that thousands of people travel from Canada to China every year, including MPs and senators who form part of the parliamentary association bringing together lawmakers from both countries.
Trudeau has faced serious criticism over the past three years for his approach to pursuing closer ties between Canada and China.
He announced in September 2016 that the government would start discussions with China on an extradition treaty, which prompted immediate backlash across the political spectrum because of China’s extensive record of human rights violations.
John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, said in an interview with the Globe and Mail in April 2017 that while the issue wasn’t high on the Canadian priority list, the government would discuss it if the Chinese wanted.
“If the Chinese wish to talk with us about it, we will talk,” he was quoted as saying.
Subsequent reporting by Global News has shown that the extradition of individuals accused of corruption by China from Canada is a key issue underlying efforts to try and stop the flow of fentanyl coming from China and killing thousands of Canadians every year.
However, the escalating tensions call into question whether Trudeau will be able to find public support if he decides to pursue either an extradition treaty, free trade talks, or approval of Huawei technology to be used to build the next generation 5G telecommunications network coming in the next several years.
Security officials in Canada and the United States have repeatedly raised questions about whether allowing Huawei components to be used in that spectrum could expose Canadian networks to spyware alleged to be built into some Huawei parts.
A review of that technology is currently underway.
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