Justin Trudeau kept his cards close to the vest Saturday as he wrapped up this weekend's high-stakes G20 meetings in Japan, acknowledging Canada's protracted impasse with China but offering few details about the ongoing effort to liberate the two Canadians caught in the crossfire.
The arrest in China of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — victims, from Canada's perspective, of a three-way diplomatic standoff rooted primarily in a dispute between the United States and Beijing — came up in sideline talks with President Xi Jinping, the prime minister said before jetting back to Ottawa.
But Trudeau would say little else about what he called a "challenging moment" for Canada, and it remained agonizingly unclear whether U.S. President Donald Trump had made good on his promise to raise the issue in his own bilateral meeting with Xi.
"I think it was important that I have an opportunity to have face-to-face discussions with President Xi on this issue," Trudeau said. The two did not formally meet, but were spotted having discussions on the margins of the gathering — "constructive interactions," in the words of the Prime Minister's Office.
"We take the situation of the two Canadians detained in China extremely seriously, and it was important we have those exchanges," Trudeau added.
One of the Canadian government's strategies going into the meetings was to rally support from other G20 countries during the two days of talks, and the PMO said Friday that Canada received "broad" support from its European partners on the matter.
But it was Trump's commitment to confront Xi about Kovrig and Spavor, secured during Trudeau's meeting with the president last week in the Oval Office, that was widely seen as the first real hope for progress in what has evolved into an intractable conflict. Tensions with China have been on the rise since December, when Canada detained Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S. government.
Meng, the chief financial officer of telecom titan Huawei Technologies, is facing charges in the U.S. of violating sanctions against Iran. She is free on bail but under partial house arrest in Vancouver as she awaits an extradition hearing; the detention in China of the two Canadian citizens, which happened less than two weeks later, is widely considered an act of retribution.
"Many of our allies around the world have been highlighting the situation of the two Canadians detained in China and we are confident that the (U.S.) president also brought that up, but you'll have to ask him for details," Trudeau said.
But in his own post-G20 press conference, marked by a reboot of stalled trade talks between the White House and Beijing, Trump didn't explicitly mention Kovrig and Spavor. Huawei, which the U.S. and other countries see as a potentially serious threat to national and global security, did come up — but not Meng.
"That was not discussed," Trump said. "We did discuss Huawei, but we didn't discuss her situation." Huawei would have to be the last issue discussed in trade talks with China, he added.
Trump said existing U.S. tariffs would remain in place against Chinese imports while negotiations continue, but that additional tariffs he's threatened to slap on billions worth of other Chinese goods will not be triggered for the "time being." He added that the U.S. and China would restart stalled trade talks, saying, "we're going to work with China where we left off."
The U.S. has imposed 25 per cent import taxes on $250 billion in Chinese products and is threatening to target another $300 billion — a move that would extend the tariffs to virtually everything China ships to the U.S. China has lashed back with tariffs on $110 billion in American goods, focusing on agricultural products in a direct and painful shot at Trump supporters in the U.S. farm belt.
A central point of friction between the U.S. and China is the decision by the Americans to deem Huawei as "incompatible" with its security interests and that of its allies. But that appears to have taken a back seat to the newly rekindled efforts to secure a trade agreement — a development that likely has farmers, exporters and financial markets exhaling with relief.
Trump, who said he has "become friends" with Xi, said he intends to allow U.S. companies to sell their products to Huawei, but he was not yet willing to remove the company from a trade blacklist.
The U.S. president also had his first face-to-face sit-down with Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman since the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the crown prince directed the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Trump, who referred to Prince Mohammed as his "friend," has long sought to minimize the crown prince's role in the murder and has been reluctant to criticize the killing of the royal critic at a Saudi consulate in Turkey last year. Trump views the kingdom as the lynchpin of U.S.' Middle East strategy to counter Iran.
In a wide-ranging news conference after the summit, Trump called the killing of Khashoggi "horrible," but said Saudi Arabia had "been a terrific ally." He suggested he was satisfied with steps the country is taking to prosecute some of those involved, while claiming that "nobody so far has pointed directly a finger" at Saudi Arabia's future king. U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that bin Salman must have at least known of the plot.
Trudeau for his part acknowledged attending a G20 session on empowering women that was also attended by bin Salman, whose regime — initially seen as progressive on the issue of women's rights — has since been widely criticized for detaining activists and backsliding on human rights issues in general. He said he raised Canada's concerns about Khashoggi and human rights.
Trudeau noted that next year's G20 summit will be held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
"Since they are hosting next year, there is an opportunity for them to demonstrate the reforms they have begun to undertake and move quicker on that, and that Canada certainly hopes there will be forward progress."
— With files from The Associated Press