OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland firmly rebuffed China's latest demand Thursday to free high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou, saying it would set a dangerous precedent that could endanger all Canadians abroad.
The unapologetic rejection came in Washington, where Freeland ended two days of meetings with top Trump administration officials and U.S. lawmakers, a table-setter for next week's White House meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump.
Trump and Trudeau are to discuss the ongoing effort to ratify the new North American trade agreement as well as their shared challenges with China. The meeting will give Trudeau and Trump an opportunity to discuss strategy ahead of the G20 leaders' summit in Japan at the end of the month, when they'll have face time with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In December, China detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in apparent retaliation for the RCMP's arrest of Meng, a Chinese high-tech executive, on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Canada is caught between its two biggest trading partners on that issue, with Trudeau insisting Canada has to follow the rule of law but having no luck pressing the case with China's leaders.
"What I can say is that the current difficulties in China-Canada relations are caused solely by the Canadian side, who must assume full responsibility," Geng Shuang, the spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said Thursday.
"We hope it will take China's solemn concerns seriously, release Ms. Meng Wanzhou without further delay and ensure that she returns to China safe and sound, and take concrete measures to bring bilateral relations back to the right track at an early date."
Freeland said that wasn't an option.
"It would be a very dangerous precedent indeed for Canada to alter its behaviour when it comes to honouring an extradition to treaty in response to external pressure," she said.
"When we think about the implications of setting such a precedent we could easily find ourselves in a situation where by acting in a single, specific case we could actually make all Canadians around the world less safe."
Besides the Kovrig and Spavor cases, China has obstructed shipments of Canadian agriculture products such as canola and pork, claiming that they're ridden with pests or have labelling problems. On Thursday the government promised that Export Development Canada will put up $150 million in additional insurance backing for canola farmers looking to sell in new markets.
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence has said Trump will press Xi to release Kovrig and Spavor and will link the plight of the two Canadians to broader trade talks between Washington and Beijing. Global Affairs Canada says Spavor received his eighth consular visit from Canadian diplomats on Thursday, one day after Kovrig's latest visit.
While Trudeau and Trump have crossed paths at various international events and had several telephone conversations, this will be their first substantive meeting since the U.S. president insulted the prime minister a little over a year ago after departing the G7 summit in Quebec.
The two leaders have continued to engage because both governments needed to wrestle a conclusion out of the often acrimonious renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump forced on Canada and Mexico.
Now, with the recent removal of U.S. tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum imports, there is renewed momentum to ratify the new trade pact.
Mexico's Senate is expected to give its final legal approval to the new deal next week, but a delicate political dance continues between Ottawa and Washington over ratification. Trudeau has tabled the government's ratification bill and it is winding its way through Parliament — slowly — ahead of next week's adjournment of the House of Commons.
Canadian government sources have said the House could be recalled after its summer recess, in a last session before the October federal election, to deal with ratifying the new NAFTA if the U.S. Congress doesn't deal with the matter promptly. As much as the government wants to move "in tandem" with the U.S. toward final approval of the new agreement, it doesn't want to get too far ahead.
Freeland sidestepped a series of questions about the exact timing of Canada's ratification during her press conference at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.
"We think of it as a kind of Goldilocks approach — not too hot, not too cold; we're not going to go too fast, we're not going to go too slow."
She said that means spending a lot of time talking with U.S. counterparts "to get that pacing right."
Freeland met two leading Republican and Democratic senators on Thursday after discussing trade with U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer and China with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a day earlier.