08/21/2019 14:44 EDT | Updated 08/21/2019 14:48 EDT

Trudeau Says He Won't Back Down Against 'Increasingly Assertive' China

He says the Canadian government is closely following protests in Hong Kong.

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China's President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G20 Summit on June 29, 2019 in Osaka, Japan. 

MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will seek dialogue with China but won’t back down in its defence of Canadians against what he calls an increasingly assertive global power.

In a speech Wednesday in Montreal, Trudeau said the federal government is closely monitoring developments in Hong Kong, where there are 300,000 Canadian citizens.

He stressed the need for restraint and respect of the right to peaceful assembly in the face of protests that have rocked the semi-independent Chinese territory.

“Canadians expect us to be unwavering in our commitment to human rights, while upholding the paramount importance of international law,” Trudeau said.

Canada’s relationship with China is fraught with tension over Canada’s arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou, and China’s subsequent detention of two Canadians, allegedly for national security reasons.

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Louis Huang of Vancouver Freedom and Democracy for China holds photos of  Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside British Columbia Supreme Court, in on Mar. 6, 2019

Trudeau said the government is working to obtain the release of businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, who were detained in China in December shortly after Meng was arrested at the Vancouver airport to face possible extradition to the United States.

“As a global community, we must recognize that China is a growing power and increasingly assertive towards its place in the international order,” Trudeau told the audience at the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

“But make no mistake: we will always defend Canadians and Canadian interests.”

The prime minister cited the country’s history of successful diplomacy with larger nations and said Canada has generated widespread international support for its effort to have Spavor and Kovrig released.

“We do not escalate, but we do not back down,” he said.