Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laid out a three-pronged vision of engagement, competition and confrontation with China in a CNN interview on Thursday, ahead of a much-anticipated meeting with US President Joe Biden in which the two Western leaders are expected to cover a number of security issues.
Speaking with CNN’s Paula Newton, Trudeau said that in areas like climate change, Canada aims to “engage constructively” with Beijing, while still challenging its approach in areas such as human rights and security. “We’re going to have to continue to be wide-eyed and clear about the threat that China poses and wants to pose to the stability of our democracies,” he said.
Trudeau will meet with Biden later Thursday, marking the US President’s first official overnight visit to the country since entering the White House more than two years ago. The trip is anticipated to underscore the neighbors’ close diplomatic, economic and security ties.
“Growing our economy, creating good jobs for people in a changing world, how we’re going to be holding off the rise of authoritarianism, defending our democracies, how we’re going to be continuing to step up on the fight against climate change …there’s so much that we can do together and so much greater impact that we have around the world when we do it together,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau, the longest-serving leader in the G7, has been an ally to Biden in providing military and financial assistance to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. At home, the US and Canada also share a number of domestic security concerns, from foreign election meddling to the handling of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over North America in recent months.
Canadian and US skies are jointly protected by the bilateral agency North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which shot down three airborne objects in February amid fears of Chinese spying. One was identified as a Chinese surveillance balloon, which Beijing described as a civilian airship that accidentally entered US airspace.
Both governments are also scrutinizing less tangible potential threats from overseas. Popular social media app TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese parent company, has recently been banned from government devices in both countries. And earlier this month, Trudeau said an independent report had confirmed Chinese election meddling attempts in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 elections – an accusation which Beijing has described as “total nonsense.”
Trudeau told Newton that he envisioned a range of ways of dealing with China’s growing power.
“One of the things we have to remember is China is the second largest economy in the world and continues to grow. We are going to have to – in some circumstances – engage constructively with China like we did around the conference on biodiversity that we hosted with them in Montreal,” he said, referring to the United Nations COP15 summit in December.
“There’s other places where we’re going to have to be stiff competition to China in terms of market access (and) in terms of investments in the Global South. We need to be able to show that the Western democracies are there to make those investments and they’re as competitive to China,” he said.
“But there are also areas in which we’re going to have to directly challenge China, whether it’s on human rights, whether it’s on security behaviors, whether it’s on cyber attacks or concerns like that. We’re going to have to continue to be wide-eyed and clear about the threat that China poses and wants to pose to the stability of our democracies.”
In 2021, China and Canada ended a bitter standoff over nationals detained in each country; Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were released after being held in China for nearly three years on espionage charges, while Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was allowed to return to China after being arrested in Vancouver on a US warrant. China has consistently denied that the cases were in any way connected.
A series of controversies involving China have also dogged Trudeau in recent months.
In early March, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, named for his father, said it would refund a major donation after local media reported that it had received $150,000 in 2016 from two wealthy Chinese businessmen to fund scholarships and leadership programs.
The Foundation said in a statement that it does not accept any donation that “may have been sponsored by a foreign government.”
In a separate incident, member of parliament Han Dong left Trudeau’s Liberal party after reports emerged in Canadian media that he had suggested to a Chinese diplomat that the federal Conservative Party would benefit politically if Beijing released the two Michaels.
CNN is not able to independently verify those reports. Trudeau told Newton on Thursday that he learned of Dong’s meeting through media reports.
Dong, who confirmed the meeting took place but denies the alleged comments, will now sit as an independent.
“I want to assure Mr. Michael Spavor and Mr. Michael Kovrig and their families that I did nothing to cause them any harm. Like everyone in this House, I worked hard and advocated for their interest as a parliamentarian. The allegations made against me are as false as the ones made against you,” he said Wednesday night in an emotional statement in Canada’s parliament.
Trudeau also teased a possible migration deal with the United States in the interview, saying that “we hopefully will be able to make to make an announcement to reassure Canadians and Americans that we continue to handle migration seriously.”
Growing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers at the US southern border have resulted in waves of migration northward. Canada, which ranks as the top country on Gallup’s Migrant Acceptance Index, saw record migration last year, which in turn bumped its population growth to unprecedented levels.
In late 2022, the Canadian government also announced that it aimed to bring in 1.5 million immigrants by 2025 to bolster the gap in its economy created by an aging population.
But conservatives in Canada have criticized the migration surge – particularly through the unofficial border crossing Roxham Road, a remote street that connects the US and Canada.
Some asylum seekers have focused on that border crossing as one where they can request protection from Canada despite having passed through the United States – a strategy that they would not normally be able to use under the Safe Third Country Agreement.
Signed in 2002, the pact applies to people transiting through a country where they could have claimed asylum because it’s deemed safe. It means that anyone entering a land port of entry could be ineligible to make a claim and therefore be returned to the US. Because Roxham Road is not an official crossing, people who transit there can still request asylum in Canada.
“Canada is always willing to do more,” Trudeau told Newton. “We’re a country that has been built like the United States on welcoming people from around the world. We just need to make sure we’re doing it in responsible proper ways to continue to have our citizens positive towards immigration, as Canadians always are.”
Also expected on the two leaders’ agenda Thursday is Haiti, the Caribbean nation plagued with gang violence and political instability from which many recent migrants in North America originate.
Earlier this week, the United Nations reiterated its call to the international community to deploy a force to Haiti to restore peace to the Caribbean nation, where gang-led violence is “spiraling out of control.” But member states have so far have been reluctant to heed the call, amid deep skepticism among Haitians.
Trudeau’s government too has stopped short of offering any military presence on the ground in Haiti, though it has sent Canadian surveillance aircraft and naval vessels to the country in addition to aid.
The Prime Minister said other nations should step up sanctions on Haitian elites, whom he blamed for encouraging chaos in the country.
“The simplest external solutions are not always the best way to help,” he told Newton of military intervention.