The diplomatic tensions between Canada and China took what Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland styled Friday as a positive step after she finally landed a face-to-face meeting with her Chinese counterpart to talk about two Canadians being detained in China.

Freeland and Wang Yi met during a summit of Southeast Asian nations in Bangkok, Thailand, after she had been previously rebuffed in attempts to talk about Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who remain imprisoned in apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Freeland raised the issue of the two Canadians, and Wang "expressed concerns" about Meng's extradition process, Freeland told a conference call, without elaborating.

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.

"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," Freeland said.

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.

Freeland was quick to characterize her conversation with Wang as evidence of progress, albeit incremental: "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, or appointing an ambassador.

"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," Scheer said during an event in Toronto.

The opposition parties used this week's rare summer meeting of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee to spotlight the government's handling of the China file. The Conservatives and NDP had called for the meeting in response to allegations that two former ambassadors to China were asked to check with the government before making public statements on the matter.

David Mulroney and Guy Saint-Jacques told The Globe and Mail newspaper last week they had been contacted by an official from Global Affairs Canada. Mulroney said the official had asked him to clear future comments with Global Affairs and that the request had come from the PMO.

Freeland said neither she, nor anyone in her office "instructed anyone to have these conversations." Trudeau has issued a similar statement.

Freeland said that "conversations are sometimes misconstrued." She said that neither she nor the prime minister would look to muzzle former diplomats.

"The important thing is to be very clear as I have been with the public service going forward, that ... we should never make any effort to stifle free and open public debate in Canada."

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