Question of government's China strategy looms as attention turns to G20 meetings

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping, pictured here at the G20 Summit in Japan in 2019, are expected to meet face to face in Bali, Indonesia, this week. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping, pictured here at the G20 Summit in Japan in 2019, are expected to meet face to face in Bali, Indonesia, this week. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada is facing a key test of its China strategy, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to come face to face with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the upcoming G20 meetings in Indonesia.

Questions about Canada's stance on Beijing — which are expected to be articulated more clearly in an upcoming release of an Indo-Pacific strategy document — followed Trudeau as he began a tour of Southeast Asia, including several days at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia.

The opposition has also criticized the prime minister over reports that China sought to sway the 2019 federal election.

"It's long past time for the Trudeau government to come forward with a robust plan to counter Beijing's foreign interference operations here on Canadian soil," said Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong and Quebec lieutenant Pierre Paul-Hus in a statement.

Asked by reporters about the issue during a closing press conference at the ASEAN summit in Bali, Trudeau said Canadians should be assured about the integrity of elections.

"But of course, we're always going to engage with leaders in ways that highlight concerns of Canadians to stand up for our values and underscore preoccupations that Canadians have about things going on in the world," he said.

Trudeau wouldn't say concretely whether he would raise the issue if he talked with Xi. The two are expected to sit close together, as seating arrangements are often by alphabetical order.

"As always, I will raise issues of human rights, issues of matters that preoccupy Canadians with any and all leaders that I engage," Trudeau said Sunday.

China an 'increasingly disruptive force' says foreign minister

Xi attended last year's meeting of the G20 virtually, so the two leaders did not cross paths at the event, which took place just over a month after Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor returned home from detention in China.

Trudeau was similarly vague on questions about whether he or Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be attending the meeting.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Xi are expected to meet for face-to-face talks Monday, ahead of the start of the G20 meetings.

Government of Canada
Government of Canada

In a speech earlier this week, Joly labelled China as an "increasingly disruptive" force on the world stage. But she argued there would also be moments when collaboration is necessary.

"We will challenge China when we ought to, and we will co-operate with China when we must," she said. Joly has cited climate change, health and denuclearization as key areas of engagement.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne has moved on China when it comes to his portfolio, seeking to restrict China's influence in Canada's critical minerals industry. Earlier this month the government ordered three Chinese companies to sell their stakes in Canadian mineral enterprises.

WATCH | Industry minister addresses relationship with China:

"I will apply intense scrutiny and I will block any transaction — any transaction — that I don't find to be in the national interest of Canada," Champagne told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

Champagne also suggested "decoupling" from China during a conference in Washington, D.C., last month. In conversation with Barton, he framed that idea as part of a push to trade more with countries whose values align with Canada's — the "friendshoring" concept advocated by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Chong, the Conservative critic, has said the government has a scattershot policy on China.

"We've had so many iterations of what the government's China policy is, it's even caused confusion amongst our allies," he told CBC's The House in October.

Trudeau was also asked Sunday about whether he would raise the issue of China's detention of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang.

The House of Commons passed a motion condemning those actions as genocide, but cabinet either abstained or was absent from the vote.

Trudeau said Sunday that it is important to take acts of genocide "incredibly seriously" but that "the designations of genocide need to be made by proper international authorities."