Chrystia Freeland

Ottawa: Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says a face-to-face meeting she had with her Chinese counterpart this week was a positive step in what has become a complicated relationship between the two countries.

Freeland said Friday that she met with Wang Yi during a summit of Southeast Asian nations this week in Bangkok, Thailand.

She had previously been rebuffed in her attempts to talk with Wang about Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who are being detained in China in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the United States.

During a conference call, Freeland said she believed the meeting was a positive step towards getting the two Canadians released.

She said Wang “expressed concerns” about Meng’s extradition process to the United States, but she refused to elaborate.

When the meeting was over, she said the two agreed they would keep the lines of communication open.

However, the details of any future discussion will be largely kept behind closed doors, she said an echo of the government’s strategy during last year’s often contentious free trade negotiations between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

“A reason those conversations were ultimately successful is we took a view at the outset that we would not be negotiating in public,” Freeland said.

“Our relationship with China is complicated at the moment and I am convinced, as I was during the NAFTA negotiations and by the NAFTA precedent, that the surest route to a successful outcome is for us not to be negotiating in public.”

China detained Spavor and Kovrig late last year on allegations of espionage, shortly after the RCMP arrested Meng in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant. The U.S. wants to extradite Meng and prosecute her for allegedly lying to banks to avoid U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The Trudeau government has repeatedly insisted Meng will be dealt with fairly and transparently by an independent judiciary, and calls China’s arrests of Kovrig and Spavor arbitrary.

There have been few signs that the diplomatic tensions are on the verge of thawing; Freeland was quick to characterize the conversation as one such indication. “The fact we were able to speak and discuss these issues face to face, directly with one another, absolutely is a positive step.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, on the other hand, assailed the Liberal government for what he called a lack of action on the file in the months since the situation exploded _ including not complaining to the World Trade Organization about China’s efforts to hamstring Canadian exports to the country.

“They still haven’t even taken the step of appointing an ambassador, something that should be very, very straightforward for this government,” Scheer said during an event in Toronto.

“So, you’ll pardon me if I’m not about to congratulate the minister of foreign affairs for taking a very basic step here. There’s far more that they should have been doing much, much earlier.”

By Jordan Press, The Canadian Press