OTTAWA — Canada's new foreign minister says he will work with the incoming Biden administration in Washington to find ways to help two Canadian men imprisoned by China.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, the former NASA astronaut who lived nearly a decade in the United States, made the commitment as he took over the portfolio from François-Philippe Champagne in Tuesday's cabinet shuffle.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been in Chinese prisons since December 2018 on what Canada and its allies say are trumped-up national security charges in retaliation for the RCMP's arrest of Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
President Donald Trump's defeat has raised the possibility that a new Democrat administration might be open to rethinking pursuing the prosecution of Meng, which could open the door for China to release the two men.
"The relationship between Canada and China is a very important relationship, but it also has intersections with the relationship between the United States and China as well," Garneau said.
"So, we're going to develop, in the coming weeks with the new administration, our ideas about the two Michaels and other issues that jointly affect our two countries vis-a-vis China."
Champagne's term as foreign minister ended with a diplomatic bang on Tuesday as he joined his British counterpart, Dominic Raab, in announcing measures to prevent the import of goods produced under forced labour from places such as China's Xinjiang province.
That includes mass internment camps for Muslim Uighurs in the province, video surveillance, forced labour and the mass sterilizations of women.
China denies it is doing anything wrong in Xinjiang.
Global Affairs Canada said it will prohibit the import of goods "produced wholly or in part by forced labour" and require Canadian companies to adhere to a "Xinjiang Integrity Declaration," among other measures.
"Co-ordinated international action is needed to address the risk of forced labour entering global supply chains, and the U.K. is working closely with its partners on this issue,” Britain's foreign ministry said.
Champagne said his new portfolio, as minister of innovation, science and industry, would allow him to follow up on the work he started Tuesday with Britain.
"I think there's opportunities in terms of building even stronger supply chains among countries who share the same values and principles," said Champagne.
Canada's partnership with Britain on targeting human-rights abuses in China is the result of Champagne's efforts to build new coalitions with other allies as the Trump administration in Washington pursued an "America first" foreign policy that disrupted traditional international co-operation.
Champagne has also led a more hawkish approach on China as the People's Republic remained implacable in considering any leniency for the "two Michaels" unless Canada bowed to its pressure and released Meng.
Britain and Canada have teamed up on denouncing China's clampdown on democracy in Hong Kong and sanctioning Russia for its poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Britain has been a traditional ally of Canada and Champagne went to great lengths to strengthen the relationship, including travelling to Britain last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet Raab personally.
On Tuesday, Garneau said he's keen to rekindle Canada's priority alliance with the U.S. under a new Biden administration.
Garneau comes to the portfolio after having already chaired the cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations, including during the tumultuous renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump repeatedly threatened to tear up.
"I believe very, very strongly that no bilateral relationship is more important than that of Canada with the United States and it will continue to be that way," Garneau said.
Garneau said he looks forward to meeting soon with his counterpart, incoming secretary of state Antony Blinken.
Garneau said he had a very good relationship with his opposite number in the Trump administration, Elaine Chao, describing it as "a very productive one during some interesting times."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2021.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press