After four years of tumultuous relations with the eastern economic superpower, Foreign Affairs Minister announces Canada is ending negotiations for a free-trade agreement with China
Ciara McGarry, Associate News Editor
On September 18th, 2020, François-Philippe Champagne, the Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that Canada was abandoning plans to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China.
Canada and China have reportedly been negotiating a free-trade agreement since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first visit to China in September 2016. Despite dogged efforts by Trudeau’s administration to finalize an agreement, the negotiation process has been fraught with political disputes.
From the outset, Beijing and Ottawa butted heads over their visions for the future agreement. Ottawa made it clear that it would only move forward with the deal if labour and gender rights as well as environmental protections were accounted for. Beijing was unwilling to cooperate, and negotiations reached a temporary stalemate.
Tensions seriously escalated in late 2018, when RCMP officers arrested Meng Wanzhou, CFO of China’s largest tech company, Huawei on December 5, 2018. Canadian officials justified the move by explaining that they were acting in accordance with an existing warrant for her arrest issued by New York courts for violation of after she had attempted to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran. Nine days later, China detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on charges related to national security violations. Amid this conflict, China’s former Ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, publicly declared that Chinese-Canadian relations had hit “rock bottom.”
Weeks prior to Wanzhou’s arrest, Canada joined various nations of the international community expressing concerns for human rights violations at China’s ‘re-education camps,’ intended to forcibly detain Uyghur Muslims, a religious minority living in Northwestern China. These concerns arose after reports from camp survivors emerged, which detailed attempts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to detain and psychologically manipulate Uyghurs using nationalist correctional programs.
In a move to denounce China’s ongoing abuse of the Uyghur Muslims, Canada spearheaded an official letter signed by dozens of foreign ambassadors, expressing their concern over the re-education camps. The public criticism widened the gap in China-Canada relations, and, in turn, stalled further trade negotiations.
The two nation’s fraught relationship continued to deteriorate, as President Xi Jinping’s regime became increasingly aggressive in its crackdown on Hong Kong democracy protests in 2019. After almost a year of strife between protesters and police forces, the CCP imposed a new National Security Law on June 30, 2020. The move garnered international condemnation and added pressure to an already-strained relationship between Canada and China. In an official statement, Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne expressed serious disapproval of China’s passage of the National Security Law: “This legislation was enacted in a secretive process, without the participation of Hong Kong’s legislature, judiciary or people, and in violation of international obligations […] Canada will continue to support the many meaningful exchanges between Canada and Hong Kong, while standing up for the people of Hong Kong.”
As Canada’s diplomatic relations with China have steadily worsened over the past four years, so too have the Liberals’ hopes for a successful free-trade agreement, and, unfortunately, the situation seems far from resolution or compromise. Meng Wanzhou remains under house arrest in British Columbia, with their next court date set for October 26, 2020. Kovrig and Spavor are currently charged and detained in China, having been accused of espionage. President Xi increasingly continues to exercise a tight grip over Hong Kong’s government and freedom of speech. China continues to forcibly house millions of Uyghur Muslims in re-education camps. “The China of 2020 is not the China of 2016,” said Mr. Champagne during an interview with The Globe and Mail in mid-September. With these sentiments in mind, it comes as little surprise that Canada officially ended trade talks with China this past month.
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That seems unlikely, even his own aides said. Yet at the same time, his newly appointed arms negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, said the administration planned to hold detailed conversations with the Russians over the future of New START. But the Chinese do not appear to be participating in that first meeting, even though Mr. Billingslea insisted that he was “confident” they would ultimately join.