Why Joly says she'll come to the table with Russia, China — even if she doesn't like it

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and Secretary of State Antony Blinken talk in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Blair Gable/Pool/The Associated Press - image credit)
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and Secretary of State Antony Blinken talk in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Blair Gable/Pool/The Associated Press - image credit)

International affairs are shifting like "tectonic plates," says Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, and Canada must show up at "every single" international table to counterbalance aggressive actors — even if she doesn't want to sit beside them.

"I don't feel like sitting next to [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov, actually," Joly said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House. But such meetings can offer opportunities to isolate Russia internationally and counter Russian propaganda, she said.

Joly pointed to an international meeting this summer where G7 foreign ministers refused to have their picture taken with Lavrov, who then exited the summit early.

"He left the meeting because he's reading the writing on the wall," she said.

G20 leaders will gather in Indonesia again next month. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada will take part in the gathering, even if Russian President Vladimir Putin also attends.

Joly says Canada needs to engage with China

One year after being appointed minister of foreign affairs, Joly — in a wide-ranging interview with The House — described her approach to the file as "pragmatic" and emphasized the need to engage in dialogue with all countries.

"I don't believe in the empty chair strategy," she said. "When Canada is not engaged in a dialogue, first, it's not helpful for our own peace and stability. And second, we lose influence in the world because the other G7 countries are actually talking to these countries."

That philosophy applies to China, said Joly, who has said before that she wants to "re-establish ties" with Beijing.

Canada-China relations tanked between 2019-2021, as the countries engaged in a diplomatic battle over China's detainment of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — a provocation broadly viewed as an act of retaliation for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver as the United States sought her extradition.

Joly said she's concerned by China's continuing display of "aggressive" behaviour in the Taiwan Strait but stressed that Canada can't turn its back on all discussions with the superpower.

"At the same time, we need to engage with them on climate change, and on health and on denuclearization, because these are also existential threats that we're facing, as a country and as a world," she said.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

But Joly's comments came just after Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne spoke of "decoupling" from China.

"People want to trade with people who, really, share the same values," he said during a recent visit to Washington D.C.

Joly suggested the two ideas aren't out of step because Canadian businesses should be aware of the risks of doing business with China, and should explore opportunities to diversify their trading partnerships.

The Conservatives say the Liberals have sown confusion over their stance on China by initially seeking deeper trade ties with Beijing and taking years to produce a formal China policy.

"We've had so many iterations of what the government's China policy is, it's even caused confusion amongst our allies," said Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong in an interview this week.

The government's Indo-Pacific strategy, which will include China, is expected before the end of the year.

Earlier this week, Canadian MPs voted unanimously to endorse a report that suggests Canada should offer asylum to Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China facing "an ongoing genocide."

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The United States has voiced grave concerns about "the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity" and a report released this summer by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that China's behaviour "may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity."

China has repeatedly denied the allegation and Joly stopped short of calling the Uyghurs' situation a "genocide." She said Canada will push China and other countries to "shed light" on what's happening to Uyghurs. She also said her government will support a bill that would prevent the purchase of goods suspected of being produced by forced labour in the region.

'I don't believe in doctrine:' Joly

The intersection of human rights, trade and diplomatic relations was highlighted in a speech by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in Washington, D.C. earlier this month.

Freeland said that Russia's invasion of Ukraine signaled the end of a three-decade period in geopolitics when western nations believed that robust trade and economic prosperity would help democracy flourish in the rest of the world.

Widely touted as the "Freeland doctrine," the speech stressed the need for closer ties between democratic countries and the creation of supply chains that don't rely on countries with dissimilar values.

Asked how she would define the "Joly doctrine" of foreign affairs, the minister rejected the question.

"I don't believe in doctrine. I don't think it's time for doctrine," she said.

"I think people are losing their lives right now in Ukraine, fighting for their freedom. I think we need to show up."