Champagne quiet on what U.S. thinks of idea to hold off on trade deal with China

OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is refusing to say how Washington responded to Canada’s request that it hold off on signing a trade deal with China until Canadian prisoners are released.

In an interview with The Canadian Press Friday, Champagne didn’t want to discuss private talks between his government and the Americans regarding the detention of businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat, Michael Kovrig.

“A lot things are happening,” he said. “But you understand that in the interests of the two Michaels, it wouldn’t be in their interests for me to go into all the details about what we are trying to do.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a French-language TV network Thursday he had asked the United States not to sign any final trade agreement with China until the Canadians have been released.

It has been more than a year since Beijing detained Spavor and Kovrig in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei. She was arrested last December at the request of U.S. authorities who want her on fraud charges. Just days later, Spavor and Kovrig were detained.

When asked how U.S. officials responded to Trudeau’s request, Champagne said the Canadian government’s “solemn obligation” is to use all the means available to demand the immediate release of Kovrig and Spavor. “And that’s what the prime minister did yesterday.”

The Globe and Mail reported Friday that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang dismissed Trudeau’s attempt to sway the Americans, describing the prime minister’s request as “doomed to fail” and “totally in vain.”

Geng said the trade deal between China and the United States is beneficial to both sides and President Donald Trump will undoubtedly prioritize the economic interests of his country.

“The conclusion of the phase one deal is in the interest of both the U.S. and China, as comports with the aspirations of the rest of the world,” he said.

Champagne said securing the release of Kovrig and Spavor is his department’s top priority.

“There isn’t another foreign affairs file on which we are spending more time, more energy, more means, than the release of the two Michaels,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2019.

Catherine Levesque, The Canadian Press

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