OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government has contacted Chinese authorities about the detention of a former Canadian diplomat in China at a time of intensifying tensions between the two countries.
Trudeau spoke briefly to reporters Tuesday about the unexplained case of Michael Kovrig, an ex-diplomat who worked as a political lead for the prime minister's official visit to Hong Kong in 2016.
"We have been in direct contact with ... Chinese diplomats and representatives,'' Trudeau said in Ottawa. "We are engaged on the file, which we take very seriously and we are, of course, providing consular assistance to the family.''
'No apparent or obvious cause'
News of Kovrig's detention comes after China warned Canada of consequences for its recent arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver's airport.
So far, it's unclear if there is any link between the two cases.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was asked Tuesday about the possibility Kovrig's detention was retaliation for Meng's arrest.
"We're obviously worried about whenever a Canadian is put in a situation that puts them at some risk or jeopardy, where's there's no apparent or obvious cause or trigger for that'' he said. "So, before we characterize it, we want to make sure we get all the facts. But at the same time we are sparing no effort to do everything we possibly can to look after his safety.''
Kovrig has been working for the International Crisis Group since February 2017 as its senior adviser for northeast Asia. One of his colleagues wrote in a short email that the organization had few details about his detention.
"We are doing everything possible to secure additional information on Michael's whereabouts as well as his prompt and safe release,'' the organization said in a statement.
China's embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for information about Kovrig.
His LinkedIn profile says he served as the "political lead'' on Trudeau's visit to Hong Kong in September 2016. At the time, Kovrig worked in Canada's consulate-general in Hong Kong.
He also describes himself as an international policy analyst and strategist "at the intersection of communication, politics, economics and global security.'' He says he has 20 years of international experience and about 10 years working for Canada's foreign-affairs department, which included postings in Beijing, Hong Kong and its United Nations mission in New York.
A profile on the International Crisis Group's website says Kovrig, who speaks Mandarin, conducts research and analysis on foreign affairs and global security issues in northeast Asia, particularly China, Japan and the Korean peninsula.
'Let cooler heads prevail'
Roland Paris, who served as Trudeau's senior foreign-policy adviser until June 2016, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that Chinese "retaliation against Canadian interests or Canadians would be unacceptable and pointless.''
"It would have zero impact on judicial proceedings in Canada,'' wrote Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa. "Beijing should already know this from previous experience. Let cooler heads prevail.''
Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China, believes that Kovrig's arrest was a direct response to Wanzhou's detention — part of a strategy pursued by the Chinese to "put as much political pressure as possible on the Canadian government."
"In China there's no coincidence," he said on CBC's Power and Politics on Tuesday. "If they want to send you a message, they will send you a message."
Meng's arrest in Vancouver has opened a deep rift with the Asian superpower, which is Canada's second-largest trading partner. The United States is seeking to have Meng extradited on allegations that she tried to bypass American trade sanctions on Iran.
Beijing has warned Canada of unspecified "grave consequences'' for the arrest of Meng, who is the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and has been described in some circles as "corporate royalty'' in China. Huawei is one of the world's largest telecom companies.
Story continues after video.
The evolving dispute has created fresh uncertainties for Canadians who spend time in China.
Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said it could cause senior executives from Canada to think twice about upcoming trips to China.
"The personal security issue isn't generally a concern on the part of people that visit China, but now it's a new ballgame,'' Kelly said.
International Trade Minister Jim Carr and Small Business Minister Mary Ng, both of whom recently returned from official visits to China, recommended Canadians conduct business as usual in the Asian country, even with the heightened tensions and threats that have followed Meng's arrest.
"Just keep doing what you're doing,'' Carr said Tuesday in an interview. "It's a very sophisticated relationship that goes back decades ... It's in the interests of both countries to broaden and deepen the trading relationship.''
Carr and Ng had spoken just before news spread of Kovrig's detention, but one of their staffers said later that their views were unchanged.
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Kovrig's case quickly made international waves Tuesday.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Washington is concerned by reports that China has detained a Canadian citizen.
"We urge China to end all forms of arbitrary detention and to respect the protections and freedoms of all individuals under China's human rights and consular commitments,'' Robert Palladino said.
Kovrig made headlines in August 2006 for very different reasons.
While he was a public-affairs officer at the Canadian mission to the UN, Kovrig surprised his girlfriend with a marriage proposal after luring her into the empty UN General Assembly hall.
His girlfriend, who grew up in Afghanistan, said yes.
"The General Assembly hall is a place for announcing commitments to the world,'' Kovrig said at the time. "Our romance has been international, so it seemed appropriate to make the commitment on international territory.''
With files from HuffPost Canada
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