Remarks by the Minister of Foreign Affairs before the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations


November 23, 2020 – Ottawa, Ontario

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy

Mr. Chair, Honourable Members, thank you for the invitation to appear before you today.

The work you do here is important, because the relationship between Canada and China is important to Canadians.

The countries that make up the Indo-Pacific region are a driver of economic prosperity for Canada and for the world. By some estimates, just ten years from now, Asia will account for roughly 60% of the world’s economic growth.

The bilateral and multilateral relationships we foster and the region’s stability create jobs, open up markets, connect communities and support Canadian families here at home.

As the world’s second largest economy and home to 1.4 billion people, China is a key actor in the region and beyond.

Why China matters

This year marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and China.

50 years later, I don’t think anyone would say this is an easy relationship. Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have now been arbitrarily detained for nearly two years.

It is a complex and multidimensional one, not just for Canada, but for democracies around the world.

China is changing before our eyes and at a rapid pace.

We recognize China’s growing influence on the world stage, as a global hub for manufacturing, trade and lending … and the single largest trading nation in the world.

It is the first trading partner of an astonishing 124 countries. It is the first trading partner in Africa, second in Latin America. And it is also an important trading partner for Canada for both imports and exports. Bilateral trade in goods and services between Canada and China increased eight-fold over the last 20 years, from $10.6 billion in 2000 to $82.8 billion in 2019.

In addition, China can be a key player on the world stage in the fight against climate change, COVID-19, or to ensure the stability of financial markets and global economic development.

With significant development assistance funding in Africa and Latin America, it gives China growing clout in the developing world.

As an example, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has signed cooperation agreements with 138 countries to build infrastructure that will connect it to developing countries. China’s banks have already provided loans worth over US $461 billion, raising many concerns over debt sustainability, transparency and international standards on labour and the environment.

China’s ambition even reaches the Arctic region where it aims to develop shipping lanes, calling it the Polar Silk Road. This is a new reality we need to take into account and thus engage China with eyes wide open.

The China of 2020 is not the China of 2015, or even the China of 2018.

Its rise has brought with it troubling threats to human rights, to longstanding agreements of autonomy for places like Hong Kong, to freedom of expression, and to the international institutions that underpin the rules-based order of which Canada is a steadfast promoter. 

We see a country and a leadership increasingly prepared to throw its weight around to advance its interests.

This includes the use of coercive diplomacy, like the arbitrary detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to try to get their way.

This, however, is not a sentiment unique to me or to Canada. Democracies around the world are rethinking their own relationship with China.

Multilateralism will be key to ensuring global stability and security in a world in which China is a powerful actor. That’s why we are working with like-minded countries to defend the rules-based international order and ensure China abides by its obligations under international human rights law.

When dealing with China, we will be firmly guided by Canadian interests, our fundamental values and principles, including human rights, as well as global rules and strategic partnerships.

Let me be clear, the safety and security of Canadians at home and abroad will always be at the heart of our approach.

Tactics such as coercive diplomacy, including arbitrary detention, are unacceptable in the conduct of state-to-state relations and this is something I have raised not just with our allies but directly with my Chinese counterpart.

We do and we will continue to challenge China when it comes to human rights being violated and will always protect Canadians when it comes to our national security, compete with our innovative businesses and abundant resources that allow us to do so, and cooperate on global challenges like climate change because there is no easy path forward without China.

How we engage – evolution & Canada’s actions in the past year


More than 700 days have passed since the arbitrary arrest and detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, as well as the arbitrary sentencing of Mr. Schellenberg, and we remain deeply concerned.

We continue to call for the immediate release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, and for clemency for Mr. Schellenberg, as we do for all Canadians facing the death penalty.

I know all members of this committee, indeed all Canadians, are angered by the detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor and are concerned for their wellbeing. I would also like to acknowledge the resilience demonstrated by the families and their support every step of the way.

Finally, after many months, we recently secured on-site virtual consular access to Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. This is something I had personally raised in a meeting with my counterpart State Councilor Wang Yi in Rome in August this year and on which we worked tirelessly.

Since October, Ambassador Barton has on two occasions travelled to the prisons in which they are being held to lead on-site virtual visits to personally confirm the health and wellbeing of these two Canadians while they remain unjustly detained.

This is a very important development and we continue to work very hard to secure their release.


Turning to Hong Kong, the imposition of the new National Security Law in Hong Kong has raised significant concerns about:

  • The future of Hong Kong’s independent judiciary;
  • The future of human rights and freedoms in the Special Administrative Region;
  • The integrity of the One Country, Two Systems framework;
  •  And Hong Kong’s role as global hub.

On November 11, we condemned China’s removal of four democratically elected lawmakers from office in Hong Kong. It is an assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Alongside our partners, we continue to call on Chinese authorities to uphold international human rights obligations.

We have been at the forefront of the international response to the National Security Law, issuing – often at our urging – statements alongside Australia, the UK, the United States, the G7, the Five Eyes, at the Human Rights Council, and most recently at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee.

We were also the first to suspend our extradition treaty with Hong Kong and have announced a series of other measures including export control measures and an update on travel advice for the region.

Last week, you heard from my colleague Minister Mendicino on the immigration measures we have put in place. Our response to both Hong Kong and to China is one that crosses many departments and requires significant coordination.


As all of you I’m sure, I have been quite alarmed by the reports of gross human rights violations in Xinjiang. The violations target Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities on the basis of their religion and ethnicity.

Publicly and privately, in multilateral and bilateral dialogues, we have called on the Chinese government to end the repression in Xinjiang.

I have raised this directly with my Chinese counterpart, most recently in Rome this summer at a meeting which was called at my request.

In September, we raised concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and in October, we were one of 39 countries signing the Third Committee’s declaration at UNGA in New York which referenced Xinjiang.

We continue to call on the Chinese government to allow unfettered, meaningful access to Xinjiang to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Procedures.

This is something I have raised directly with Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 


Our relationship with China is a complex one indeed.

It is absolutely imperative that democracies like Canada and our likeminded partners work together to protect the international rules that have ensured stability and prosperity for decades. It is a challenge we all share. No country will succeed alone.

Our Principled Strategic Approach to China goes well beyond our bilateral relationship; it is a global challenge. This is why we have been working with partners, especially when it comes to areas of fundamental disagreements with China.

Now I know some like to talk tough on China.

To those who are seduced by this one-dimensional view I say this:

While it is easy to be tough, let’s continue to be smart.

Let’s not fall into the temptation of tough and irresponsible rhetoric that will generate no tangible results for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, our farmers and entrepreneurs, and human rights victims and advocates.

I think Canadians know this. They know we must be smart in our approach, and we must be nimble.

That is what is at stake here.

I want to thank you for your time and for the role you as a committee are playing in shaping the Canada-China relationship and informing the Canadian public about China.

And as we discuss today, I invite you to take a broader and longer view of the Canada-China relationship.

I am here to hear your ideas and engage in a constructive dialogue with you about one of the most important geostrategic issues of our time.

It is a feature of an open and successful country that we have these discussions.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions.

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