OTTAWA—U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa today to discuss the new trilateral North American trade pact, with both parties making it clear that relations with the Chinese regime would be at the top of those talks.
Standing next to Trudeau, Pence called on Beijing to release Kovrig and Spavor from their “unlawful detention” in Washington’s boldest and most tangible gesture of solidarity yet. Pence said Trump would press Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping on the detention of the two Canadians at next month’s G20 summit.
“We are in the midst of significant discussions over our trading relationships but I can assure you in that context going forward, we’re going to continue to urge China to release the Canadian citizens even while we deal with larger economic and structural issues between the United States and China,” Pence said.
“We are standing with Canada in this effort. We respect and are grateful for the strong stand for the rule of law that Canada has taken with regard to the Huawei executive.”
Kovrig, a former diplomat who currently works for a Canadian think tank, and Spavor, a businessman who has worked extensively in North Korea, have spent nearly six months in detention on allegations of espionage—a move on the part of Beijing that is widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest last December of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who is wanted by U.S. authorities on charges of fraud.
Canada says it was obligated by an extradition treaty with the United States to arrest Meng last December on behalf of U.S. authorities—an arrest made in accordance with the rule of law. Ottawa has repeatedly said it was deeply concerned about the men’s “arbitrary” detention and has called for their immediate release.
While Kovrig and Spavor have not been allowed access to lawyers or family, Meng was granted bail shortly after her arrest, and has been under house arrest at one of her mansions in Vancouver while she awaits extradition proceedings.
Trudeau said the release of the two Canadians is a priority for the government.
“Our first priority as a government is to make sure our citizens are released,” he said. “I know that Canada and the U.S. are united by our commitment to constructive engagement with China that demonstrates respect for the rule of law, human rights, and open, predictable, and non-discriminatory trade.”
Canada has faced increasing trade barriers erected by Beijing. Exports of canola to China have been blocked, and exporters of other products including pork and soybeans are having a hard time getting their products into the country.
Trudeau has also condemned the detention of the two Canadians, saying that Canada and its allies have expressed dismay with the way China has acted.
“We’re in a moment where like-minded nations like Canada and the United States, and many of our European and international partners, have expressed their dismay with the way china is stepping forward more assertively and indeed aggressively on the international stage,” he said.
“We’re all standing together to ensure that the rules are followed, that our values are upheld, and that China understands that the economies and democracies of the West are united in our condemnation of these arbitrary detentions in attempt to gain political leverage.”
The U.S. government has previously spoken out against the detention of Kovrig and Spavor and called for their immediate release, and Pence echoed that call again today.
“The United States has stood strong with Canada on the unlawful detention of the two Canadian citizens,” he said. “I can assure you that we’ll continue to stand firmly in that position until the citizens are freed and are restored to this nation.”
A joint Canada-U.S. statement was released shortly after the meeting, highlighting the “mutual concern” of both nations regarding the detention of the two Canadians.
“The United States and Canada stand together to firmly reject the wrongful detention of two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and call for their immediate release. China’s actions are damaging its international reputation and a deep concern for all countries that uphold the rule of law,” the statement says.
“Canada and the United States welcome constructive, results-oriented engagement with China that concretely demonstrates respect for the rule of law, human rights, and fair and reciprocal trade.”
While discussions between Trudeau and Pence took place behind closed doors, the two made opening statements before their meeting and held a media availability afterward.
Pence said the relationship between the two countries is stronger than ever thanks to the leadership of both Trump and Trudeau, and said he would make an effort to get the USMCA through Congress before the summer recess.
“I want to assure the people of Canada that the prime minister drove a hard bargain, as did our president,” he said. “I want to assure you that we’re making energetic efforts to move the approval through the Congress of the United States this summer.”
The trade deal won’t come into effect until it is ratified by all three countries. Although it took months of negotiations to complete, the agreement still faces opposition from the Democratic Party in the United States.
However, the Trudeau government has said the deal is done and is not open to further negotiation.
The Liberal government introduced legislation to ratify the USMCA on May 29, while U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer sent a letter with the draft statement of administrative action to congressional leaders the following day to kick off the process in the United States.
Trudeau also says that, beyond the new agreement, there is still room to progress with trade, including U.S. duties on Canadian softwood lumber as well as possible future tariffs on uranium.
With files from the Canadian Press. With reporting by Limin Zhou in Ottawa.