Canada won’t compromise values in relations with China, says foreign minister

<span>Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Canada will work with China when needed – but challenge it when necessary, the country’s foreign minister said, as the two nations prepare to co-host a major environmental summit despite years of diplomatic tensions.

Speaking to the Guardian after her government released its long-awaited “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, Mélanie Joly said that Canada will “promote and defend” its national interests in a region where nations are jockeying for influence and power.

“We’re a Pacific nation and what happens there matters for Canada. The future of the Indo-Pacific is linked to ours,” she said.

The strategy also makes references to human rights abuses in China, including the persecution of Muslims. Joly said Canada would remain firmly committed to promoting human rights in its interactions with allies in the region.

But she conceded that it remains hard for Canada to shut out nations whose actions run contrary to its values – especially countries as powerful as China.

“We think that diplomacy is a strength. And indeed, we need to engage. But this engagement needs to be in the context of a clear framework,” she said. “And now we’ve made this framework public … and we will be firm.”

Related: China ‘increasingly disruptive global power’, says Canadian foreign minister

The strategy, which took three years to develop, includes a C$2.3bn (US1.7bn) budget to expand Canada’s influence in the region over the next few years.

The plan, released on Sunday, was presented as a broad plan for the Indo-Pacific region, but the the document mentions China more than 50 times, describing it “an increasingly disruptive global power” – but also a nation so large and powerful that Canada must find ways to work with it.

Its publication came against a backdrop of diplomatic rows and recrimination – and just a week before the two countries will co-host Cop15, the global biodiversity conference, in Montreal.

The diplomatic tensions were clearly displayed at the G20 summit in Indonesia earlier this month, where the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was subjected to a public dressing-down by China’s president, Xi Jinping.

That exchange came after Trudeau raised concerns that China was interfering with the institutions of democracy, and intelligence officials alleged that Beijing interfered in the 2019 Canadian federal election. Meanwhile, federal police are investigating a network of illegal “police stations” in Toronto and prosecutors recently charged a Chinese researcher with espionage.

The new strategy includes nearly half a billion dollars for security initiatives, including sending an additional frigate to the region amid tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, as well as increasing funding for its domestic intelligence gathering service, CSIS, to identify security challenges. Canada will also increase its military drills with allies such as South Korea and Japan.

But Joly said Canada’s increased investment in security wasn’t a trade-off against development aid.

“We’re making sure that by investing in deterrence, there will be a respect for international norms, which will, in turn, benefit the region. It’s not an ‘either or’. We’re doing both together,” she said.

“We also wanted to put human rights as a key pillar of the strategy because we want to defend our national interests without compromising our values. Canadians are very proud of our human rights approach being part of our foreign policy,” she said.

Joly declined to say if, had the new strategy been in place, it could have deterred Beijing from jailing Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians in China, in retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018, adding she didn’t want to entertain “hypotheticals”.

The “clear-eyed” vision of China’s growing power and aggression in the region puts Canada more in line with its allies, which have also toughened their stances against Beijing in recent years.

Related: Xi angrily rebukes Trudeau over ‘leaks’ to media about Canada-China relations

China responded sharply to the new strategy on Monday, alleging it was “full of ideological bias and baseless accusations against China” and lodging diplomatic démarches with Ottawa.

“If Canada bites off more than it can chew and acts at will, it will encounter defeat, as well as China’s powerful response,” the Chinese embassy in Canada told state-run Global Times.

Despite the frosty relationship between Beijing and Ottawa, Joly said she was optimistic that the two nations had common ground and shared concerns, including nuclear proliferation, global health and climate change.

“These are issues that have no border,” she said, pointing to Cop15, the global biodiversity conference to be co-hosted by China and Canada next week in Montreal. “We need to be able to engage and reinforce the international system to make sure that our populations are kept safe as we deal with the existential threat of climate change.”

Canada’s cautious relationship with China comes in stark contrast with its robust efforts to isolate Russia.

At the recent G20 summit in Jakarta, Joly refused to meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and previously described the country as a “pariah” nation.

“Since the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, we said we would do everything in our power to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically,” she said. “Russia’s disregard of fundamental UN principles, which includes the territorial integrity and sovereignty of its neighbours, is blatant. And so in that context, we will not engage with Russia.”

In Amsterdam this week for meetings with Nato colleagues, Joly said Canada firmly remained committed to supporting Ukraine following an announcement of C$500m in new military aid.

She dismissed rumours that allies, including the US, were growing weary at supplying Ukraine with arms and ammunition.

“Russia isn’t at the negotiation table at all. And so our goal right now is just to reinforce Ukraine’s position on the ground through military aid, intelligence sharing and financial support,” she said. “Because when we do that, we’re actually reinforcing their position at the negotiation table. There will be a diplomatic solution eventually. That’s been the case in every single conflict. But we’re not there yet.”

Appointed to the role in October 2021, Joly has touted the importance of Canada’s “feminist foreign policy”.

She recently hosted a summit of female foreign ministers around the world in a condemnation of Iran’s crackdown on protesters – a summit she hopes to replicate soon.

“Women’s rights are human rights. And we need to highlight that,” she said. “States cannot hide behind national pretext to violate them, including when it comes to women and girls.”

She has also used the platform to speak about the challenges of balancing a personal life with the immense pressures of being a woman in politics.

Joly has received praise for speaking out about her efforts to conceive a child and her nine attempts at in vitro fertilization.

“It’s been extremely difficult balancing both that and my job, particularly in the last year – a year that for many people has felt like a decade,” she said. “I was reticent to speak up at first but ever since I was encouraged by a close friend, I’ve received so much support. In turn, I’m not shy to support so many women and couples in this tough reality.”

She said she hoped her honesty will inspire more women to enter politics.

“I think we need different types of models. In my conversations with many young women that are interested in politics, the ability of being able to reconcile personal life and the professional realities is one that is keeping them from realizing their dream of going into politics,” she said. “It’s tough – but it’s the best job in the world.”