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Canada-China Relationship Is Quickly Deteriorating After Huawei CFO's Arrest

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

U.S.-China relations are at their lowest in decades, and Canada's relations with China are also at a new low, in part because of a request by the U.S. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Canada and China were meant to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year. Instead, the two sides have been hurling insults and threats over issues unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

GUY SAINT-JACQUES: I think it's fair to say that we are at the lowest point in our relation.

NORTHAM: Guy Saint-Jacques was the Canadian ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. He says relations began to splinter about two years ago, when Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei at the request of the U.S. Washington wants Meng extradited for violating American sanctions against Iran. Saint Jacques says Beijing was outraged by Canada's move.

SAINT-JACQUES: About a week later, China retaliated by arresting two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. They were detained on suspicion of endangering national security.

NORTHAM: The two men remain jailed in China. Lynette Ong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says the Canadian government worked quietly behind the scenes to patch up relations with Beijing with no luck.

LYNETTE ONG: I think they have tried a softer approach, not to provoke and not try to be too harsh on China, hoping that, you know, China might let it go. But I think that softer and nonconfrontational approach clearly hasn't worked.

NORTHAM: Ong says, over the past year, the Canadian government has been taking a tougher stand towards China. It's criticized human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang and Beijing's introduction of a draconian national security law in Hong Kong. Canada's suggestion that it could offer asylum to pro-democracy protesters there touched a raw nerve. Here's China's ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONG PEIWU: So I would like to suggest that people here take an objective and fair view of what's happening in Hong Kong and to make sure not to interfere in those domestic affairs of China.

NORTHAM: Ambassador Peiwu's suggestion that Ottawa support the national security law or that the health and safety of 300,000 Canadian citizens in Hong Kong would be imperiled was widely viewed as a threat. He also accused Canada of being an accomplice of the U.S. by agreeing to detain Huawei's Meng Wanzhou. The University of Toronto's Professor Ong says Huawei is a powerful global company, and Meng's arrest could set a bad precedent for Chinese nationals around the world.

ONG: So these days, you have a lot of Chinese multinationals with their CEOs and CFOs flying around the world. I think arresting Meng is an illustration that the U.S. could use any third country to extend its long-arm jurisdiction.

NORTHAM: In other words, China's sending a message to other countries that there's a price to pay for any such arrest of its citizens. There have been calls in Canada to just release Meng, smoothing the way for the return of the two jailed Canadians. Former Ambassador Saint-Jacques disagrees, in part because Canada is obligated to honor the extradition treaty with the U.S. Also...

SAINT-JACQUES: I think it would be a vindication for China that their strategy has worked, and then that would be an invitation for using similar tactics in the future, every time that they would want something from Canada.

NORTHAM: Saint-Jacques says Meng will likely be extradited to the U.S., leaving Canada open to more retaliation from China.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.