OTTAWA— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to Washington next week with a key aim: to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump it is in America’s own interests to stand up for the release of two Canadians jailed on security allegations in China.
Trudeau travels to Washington Wednesday evening with a to-do list that includes nailing down the timing for the ratification of the new NAFTA deal, preventing U.S. tariffs on Canadian uranium exports, and easing U.S. barriers to Canadian softwood lumber, according to senior government officials.
But most urgent is the need to persuade Trump to personally take up with Chinese President Xi Jinping the fight for the release of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor.
According to top officials who spoke to the Star, the prime minister is looking to have frank “positive” discussions with Trump about China’s threats to Canada, seen as retaliation for Canada’s co-operation with an American extradition request seeking the arrest of a Huawei executive who passed through Vancouver last December.
It was Trudeau who asked for the bilateral meeting with Trump ahead of G20 meetings in Japan in two weeks.
In essence, Trudeau’s pitch to Trump is that he cannot allow China to believe America is so weak it is prepared to abandon its allies.
“What on earth do you think China thinks, if you won’t even stand up for Canada of all countries?” is the way it was described to the Star.
The day-and-a-half trip is being billed as a low-key working visit.
Trump and the Canadian prime minister — who recently hosted Trump’s Vice-President Mike Pence in Ottawa — are expected to meet at the Oval Office.
Their talk may carry over into a luncheon, and the prime minister may seek to meet with Congressional leaders to determine the prospects for a summertime ratification of the new North American free trade pact.
The Trudeau government says it wants to ratify the new Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement “in tandem” with its other partners. But it may have to recall Parliament in early August to do so because MPs are set to leave next week for the summer recess. And there are no signs that Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, who are pressing for improvements on labour and environmental protections, will allow the deal to come to a vote soon.
So the stakes, even for a low-key meeting are high.
Although they have met at other international summits, Trump and Trudeau have not had a full bilateral face-to-face discussion since last year’s disastrous G7 encounter in Charlevoix.
That meeting started well but exploded in a flurry of Trump tweet-insults aimed at Trudeau over NAFTA renegotiations.
The chill that set in on Canada-U.S. relations thawed slightly at a NATO summit the following July, according to a senior Canadian official, and Trudeau has privately downplayed tensions.
But with the fate of two Canadians jailed on security allegations in China, two others on death row, and Chinese restrictions on Canadian canola, pork, beef exports — all widely seen as retaliation for the RCMP arrest last fall of Meng Wanzhou, Trudeau is keen to press Trump to take up Canada’s cause in any face-to-face meeting in Japan that the U.S. President takes with China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador in Beijing, suggests this is a “real and serious approach” that the Canadian prime minister can make.
Over the past decade, Mulroney says, there have been “very persistent efforts by China to influence core U.S. allies or at least render them ambivalent at a time when the U.S. might seek their support.”
“That’s something the Americans should pay attention to,” said Mulroney. “There is a U.S. angle for pushing back against China too; you don’t want to see your allies disaffected, you don’t want to see your allies split away from you, you want to prevent that from happening.”
“How he (Trump) does this remains to be seen,” acknowledged Mulroney.
“But I think the first job is to ensure that the Americans see it’s in their interests to see these Canadians go free and it’s in their interests to see hostage diplomacy eliminated as a tool that China can use to intimidate countries, in particular countries that are close allies of the United States.”
Another former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said however that in order for it to be successful, Trump would have to be “forceful” in his overtures to China, threaten consequences “if they don’t stop harassing Canadians, and they don’t free the two Canadians, but I’m not sure that he’s displayed in the past a sense of magnanimity or generosity towards Canada.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc