Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Rome on Tuesday and urged Beijing to release two Canadian citizens it detained late in 2018.
Champagne also raised Canada’s opposition to China’s treatment of Hong Kong, said a government official who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
Champagne, in Europe on an official trip, met Wang in a hotel for 90 minutes. The two men previously held face-to-face talks in Japan in November 2019.
Wang was in Rome to attend events marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Italy and the People’s Republic of China, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Ties between the two countries deteriorated in December 2018 after Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, on a US extradition warrant.
Soon after, China detained Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and charged them with spying. It also blocked imports of some canola seed.
“Minister Champagne again reiterated that the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain a top priority … and that Canada continues to call on China to immediately release both men,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Earlier this month, a Chinese court in Guangzhou also sentenced Canadian national, Xu Weihong, to death for drug-related charges.
Last year, two other Canadians, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg and Fan Wei, were also sentenced to death in separate drug cases.
China has denied that the detentions of Spavor and Kovrig, or the death sentences of the three Canadians are linked to Meng’s case and Huawei.
Spavor, 44, is a businessman with ties to North Korea, while Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation that focuses on conflict resolution.
No further details were released regarding the meeting between Champagne and Wang. But earlier reports said there have been some proposals of a prisoner swap of sorts, with one senior Canadian official suggesting intervention in the extradition process to release Meng in exchange for the repatriation of the two Canadians.
According to the Canadian foreign ministry, the two diplomats also “discussed the importance of global collaboration in the face of COVID-19, including the search for a vaccine”, as well as Hong Kong.
Last month, Canada suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong following new Chinese national security legislation and said it could boost immigration from the former British colony.
In response, China said Canada had “grossly interfered” in Chinese affairs, adding that the new legislation would safeguard security in Hong Kong.