September 23, 2016 - 7:00 AM
OTTAWA - Canada and China are launching exploratory talks towards a free trade agreement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday during a visit that saw the Chinese premier publicly defend his country's use of the death penalty.
The ever-present clash of economic interests and human rights was on full display, as it always is in Sino-Canadian relations. But Li Keqiang displayed an easy familiarity with his host — one celebrated over a beer the night before at the prime minister's Harrington Lake retreat — as the two leaders pushed forward their economic agenda.
Both leaders also acknowledged the thornier issues in their relationship, including ongoing political opposition in Canada to a potential extradition deal with China, which practices capital punishment and has a dubious human rights record.
As well, there is the spectre of China's "Operation Fox Hunt" — its international pursuit and harassment of so-called economic fugitives and other dissidents.
Standing next to Trudeau in the foyer of the House of Commons, Li denied his country sends foreign agents abroad.
But he calmly addressed head-on the issue of capital punishment in his country — providing an elegant contrast to the tongue-lashing his foreign minister gave a reporter who asked him about human rights earlier this year in Ottawa.
Li defended it, saying its use is overseen by his country's highest court. China has a large population, he explained, and that includes violent crime.
"It is consistent with our national condition," the Chinese leader said. "If we abolish the death penalty, innocent people will lose their lives."
In addition to the trade talks, the two leaders pledged to double bilateral trade by 2025 and announced a pair of breakthroughs in agriculture. They reached an agreement to try to end a lingering dispute over Canadian canola exports by 2020, although Trudeau offered no specifics.
Li also said China was lifting a ban on imports of bone-in beef less than 30 months old, a move that was immediately applauded by the Canadian Cattleman's Association as a $10-million annual gain.
The decision reflected "China's commitment to, and China's goodwill to, farmers and producers in Canada," Li said.
China has been eager to start free trade talks, but Canada has shown less enthusiasm — until Thursday.
During the prime minister's own visit to China last month, Li said the two countries had embarked on a feasibility study of a free trade deal. But Canada's ambassador to China later called that premature, citing issues including labour, the environment and Chinese state-owned enterprises.
Those concerns now seem consigned to history.
Irritants, however, remain. Li and Trudeau both said they want to see a "science-based" solution to the canola impasse, which revolves around the amount of foreign material permitted in Canadian exports of the grain.
Li said experts from both sides will work towards solutions, but in the interim, "we will continue to apply the previous practice." Canada sold $2 billion worth of canola seed to China last year.
The premier is the first Chinese leader to visit Canada in six years and both he and Trudeau said it would be the first of yearly meetings between the two of them, all aimed at strengthening economic ties.
Both leaders held a 90-minute meeting that was packed with officials from both countries, including several Canadian cabinet ministers.
Trudeau reiterated that with the two countries engaged in a high-level security dialogue, they now have a forum in which to discuss disagreements rather than the "ad-hoc" approach of the past.
He also reaffirmed Canada's long-standing opposition to capital punishment.
"We are going to continue to have frank, honest discussions about the things that matter to our people and to the international community at large," Trudeau said, adding that helping the middle class remains the dominant priority.
Li also praised the new security dialogue, saying it would help the two countries address "differences."
"The key is how to handle these differences," he said. "We need to always bear in mind the larger picture of our relations and we need to recognize that our common interests far outweigh our differences.'
Li and Trudeau appeared at ease with each other. At one point, when the simultaneous translation failed, Li encouraged Trudeau to continue talking, saying "I trust you."
And After Trudeau responded to awkward questions about a controversy over moving expenses for his senior staffers, Li cut in to expound on how much he liked the French language.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016