New allegations and a resignation strain already fraught China-Canada relations

The abrupt resignation of a Canadian lawmaker over allegations he secretly met with a Chinese diplomat has escalated a row over allegations that Beijing meddled in Canadian elections – and highlighted the complex and often fraught relationship between the two countries.

Han Dong, a member of the governing Liberal party, was reported to have met with Han Tao, China’s consul general in February 2021, to suggest that Chinese authorities delay freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians who were detained in China at the time.

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Dong confirmed the meeting but strongly denied the allegations about the conversation. On Wednesday evening, he resigned from the governing caucus to sit as an independent.

The resignation came on the back of a series of leaks from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) about alleged interference by the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in the 2021 federal election. The allegations have prompted a renewed scrutiny on the relationship between China and Canada, countries who want to forge economic ties amid an increasingly strained political relationship.

When Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, he carried with him a pedigree from his father, Pierre Trudeau, who was one of the first western leaders to recognise the People’s Republic of China. Trudeau senior was the first Canadian prime minister to visit the People’s Republic of China, meeting Mao Zedong in 1973.

When Trudeau junior took office in 2015, he promised to strengthen his country’s cooperation with China. But relations soured – especially after the 2018 detention in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive. Her arrest was swiftly followed by the detention of Kovrig and Spavor, who spent nearly three years in prison and were eventually released after Meng was freed in a deal with US prosecutors.

“It took a long time for the political class, especially the Liberal government, to acknowledge that China has changed a great deal under Xi Jinping,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016.

Saint-Jacques said that the personal relationship between Trudeau and China’s leader was partly to blame for the weakening relationship. “There is bad blood,” he said, adding that when Trudeau made his first official visit to Beijing in 2016, “the Chinese were not impressed”.

Trudeau’s “knowledge of China was outdated and he didn’t know what kind of leader Xi Jinping was. Over time, the relationship has not improved,” Saint-Jacques said.

It is in this strained context that Canada has tried to demonstrate that it can be just as robust on the world stage as its more powerful neighbour, the United States.

But some worry that the allegations of election interference show that China feels able to manipulate Canada. Beijing is “using Canada as a back door” to the US, said Gloria Fung, the president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, a network of community groups. She said that her groups have been monitoring CCP influence – including allegations of disinformation and election meddling – in Canada for over 20 years.

“China is trying to put us in our place and trying to make us feel like a small power that can be stepped on,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs. “They’re treating us as if they have licence to manipulate our democracy through our electoral system.”

Canada is now working to establish a registry of foreign agents and Trudeau has said that he will appoint an independent special investigator to look into the allegations about Chinese interference.

But McCuaig-Johnston said China had apparently suffered few consequences for its actions.

“Right now, the Chinese embassy staff must be laughing their heads off at what seems to be a free pass on what they’ve done in recent years,” she said. “They’re treating us as a weaker nation, because we’ve behaved weakly in the past.”

Related: Trudeau faces fury of Canadian MPs over alleged Chinese election meddling

Australia offers the most comparable model for navigating a relationship with China. Like Canada, Australia is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance but also has close economic ties with China and is home to large Chinese diaspora populations.

The recent political frictions mask a reality that in recent years, China’s appetite for Canadian coal, wood pulp and pork has only grown. Trade between the two countries hit a record high in 2022, with C$100bn (US$73bn) of imports from China, and C$27.9bn in exports.

But China has been known to use economic coercion to further its political aims. At the peak of the standoff over Meng, China halted imports of Canadian canola as well as pork products.

Canada, a country that relies heavily on trade and on the free flow of goods, cannot respond to such economic pressure without risking greater punishment.

Part of the challenge lies in Canada’s geographic, economic and cultural ties to the United States. Like Beijing, Washington has also shown a willingness to disrupt economic norms and impose sanctions or trade restrictions.

“China understands there’ll be more blowback if they take punitive measures against the US because of its sheer economic power. But it’s more willing and more likely to implement those measures on smaller powers like Canada,” said Jia Wang, the interim director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

Despite the tense political situation, Canada still needs to understand and work with China, said Wang, adding Canada’s best interest was to take a more “nuanced” approach that reflected both Ottawa’s mounting frustration – and its deep economic reliance on an increasingly unpredictable partner.

“We have have to stand up for Canadian values,” she said. “But we also can’t run the risk of looking away and getting cut off. It’s not in anyone’s interest – especially not for Canada.”