U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed reporters Friday afternoon against a backdrop of Maple Leaf flags and star-spangled banners — but they also had China on their minds.
The Chinese Communist Party’s shadow even led to a slip-up during Biden’s address to Parliament.
“Today I applaud China for stepping up, or, excuse me, I applaud Canada,” he said to some laughter.
“You can tell what I’m thinking about China. I won’t get into that yet.”
His two-day visit to Ottawa comes as Trudeau’s government grapples with Beijing’s alleged meddling in Canada’s affairs, including the past two federal elections.
Earlier this week, Toronto-area MP Han Dong announced he was leaving the Liberal caucus after Global News published a story alleging he advised a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that Beijing should hold off on freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — the two Canadians being held by China at the time.
WATCH | MP Han Dong will ‘vigorously contest these allegations’: Trudeau:
Dong confirmed to Global that he had a discussion with Consul General Han Tao but emphatically denied that he had advised Beijing to delay releasing the two Canadians.
As Biden was waking up in Ottawa, another story was breaking about the meeting between Dong and the Toronto consulate general — this one from the Globe and Mail.
A source told the paper the government received a CSIS transcript of Han Dong’s conversation with the consul and concluded that there was no “actionable evidence,” adding that it could not be determined that Dong asked the Chinese government to keep the two Canadians in prison for political reasons.
During a late afternoon press conference, Trudeau was asked if he believed Dong advocated for the delayed release of Kovrig and Spavor.
He responded by recommending that people watch Dong’s speech in the House of Commons earlier this week.
“We fully accept that he is stepping away from the Liberal caucus in order to vigorously contest these allegations,” said Trudeau.
“Interference from authoritarian governments like China, Russia, Iran and others is a very real challenge to our democracies and it’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Biden said he “nothing to add” on the scandal that’s rocking one of his Five Eye allies.
Kovrig and Spavor send a symbolic message
But he was more comfortable talking about the stance both his government and Trudeau’s have taken against China’s posturing on the world stage.
Kovrig and Spavor, who were detained for more than 1,000 days in China, met with Biden on his trip and were in the gallery during his address to Parliament, where they received a standing ovation.
Accused by China of espionage, their arrests were widely considered to be acts of retaliation in response to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada in 2018 following an extradition request from the U.S.
“If my mother were here, she’d say, ‘God bless you both,'” said Biden to more applause.
Kovrig and Spavor were released on the same day the U.S. Justice Department reached a deferred prosecution agreement allowing Meng to return home to China, further bolstering Ottawa’s argument that the two men were arbitrarily detained.
Their mention in Biden’s speech, appearance in the House of Commons and invitation to a gala dinner hosted in Biden’s honour Friday could all be seen as sending a message to China that Canada and the U.S. remain aligned.
“Our citizens are not bargaining chips. They’re not diplomatic leverage. They’re human beings with lives and families that must be respected,” Biden said.
WATCH | Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor receive standing ovation in House of Commons:
Biden was also happy to extol the trading relationship with Canada as an alternative to supply chains dependent on goods from China.
Jumping off a question about whether Canada will be introducing measures in next week’s budget to counter U.S. protectionist policies, Biden said the two allies are shifting the world economy.
“I’ll be darned if I’m going to stick in the situation where … we have to rely on a supply chain in the other end of the world that is affected by politics, pandemics or anything else,” he said.
“I predict to you, you’re going to see after we’re both out of office … China out of the game in terms of many of the products they’re producing.
“And the United States and Canada are pretty solidly economically situated for the future in terms of also bringing back manufacturing jobs.”
Trudeau says TikTok ban has a ‘side benefit’
The two countries have take similar steps on TikTok and its Chinese owner by banning its use on government-issued devices.
Trudeau said that, as a parent of teenagers, the policy has had an added benefit.
“Our concerns around TikTok are around security and access to information that the Chinese government could have to government phones,” he said. “It’s just a personal side benefit that my kids can’t use TikTok anymore.”
In a joint statement, Canada and the U.S. acknowledged “the serious long-term challenge to the international order posed by the People’s Republic of China, including disruptive actions such as economic coercion, non-market policies and practices, and human rights abuses.”
“Canada and the United States will also continue to cooperate on countering foreign interference in our societies in a manner that reflects our shared democratic value.”
The two also announced the launch of an energy task force to corporate on a list of projects, including harvesting critical minerals to compete against China, which dominates the market.
U.S. is keen for Canada to ramp up production of lithium, cobalt, magnesium and other minerals required for electric vehicles, solar panels and other clean-energy technologies.