China has denounced Canada for “irresponsible” remarks after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused it of “arbitrarily” sentencing a Canadian to death for drug smuggling, aggravating already icy relations.
Hours later, in an apparent bid to ease the tension, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke of the “very important and long-standing ties” between the two nations.
The countries have been at odds since early December, when Canadian police arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a United States extradition request as part of an investigation into suspected violations of US trade sanctions.
Days later, China detained two Canadians on suspicion of endangering state security.
Death sentence an added strain
Monday’s death sentence for Canadian Robert Schellenberg for smuggling 222 kilograms of methamphetamines became the latest strain on ties.
Ms Freeland said Ottawa had formally applied for clemency for Schellenberg, as it usually does in the cases of citizens condemned to death abroad.
“It’s normal to have problems but we should also remember that the links between our two countries are very big,” she told a news conference in Quebec, adding Canada had been in touch with Beijing at a number of levels.
“It is true that this is a difficult moment … the best thing for both Canada and China, and frankly for the whole world, is to get past these current difficulties.”
China has not linked any of the three Canadians’ cases to Ms Meng’s arrest but has warned of severe consequences if she is not released.
Mr Trudeau said it should be of “extreme concern” to Canada’s allies, as it was to his Government, that China had chosen to “arbitrarily apply” the death penalty.
Beijing issues travel warning for Canada
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with those statements.
“The remarks by the relevant Canadian person lack the most basic awareness of the legal system,” Ms Hua told reporters.
Taking Canada to task for issuing an updated travel advisory warning citizens about the risk of arbitrary enforcement of laws in China, Ms Hua said Canada should instead remind its people to avoid drug smuggling.
“We urge the Canadian side to respect the rule of law, respect China’s legal sovereignty, correct its mistakes, and stop making irresponsible remarks,” Ms Hua said.
The ministry later issued its own travel warning, citing the “arbitrary detention” of a Chinese national in Canada.
Professor Lynette Ong, a political scientist and China expert at the University of Toronto, told the ABC that from the perspective of Chinese authorities, Ms Meng had no case to answer.
Beijing views the Huawei executive’s arrest as “a politically calculated act to contain China’s growth”, Professor Ong said. It comes at a time when the US and China are engaged in a bitter trade dispute.
Professor Ong warned that other small and mid-sized nations could also find themselves — and their citizens — caught in the middle of the two superpowers, in the same way that Canada has.
“If this could happen to Canada we could possibly foresee this happening to Australia … and other Western countries,” she said.