Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau says the Canadian government is under no illusions when approaching a normalization of relations with China, a day after two men detained by that country for three years finally returned home.

“There was no path to a relationship with China as long as the two Michaels were being detained,” Garneau said Sunday in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live, referring to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The two men were detained and charged with espionage soon after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada in December 2018.

The series of events has chilled Canada-China relations. Garneau told host Rosemary Barton that when it comes to normalizing relations Canada’s “eyes are wide open” and the government is now following a four-fold approach to China: “coexist,” “compete,” “co-operate,” and “challenge.”

Denunciations of China over the arbitration detention of Kovrig and Spavor are one example of challenging the rising superpower, Garneau said.

Michael Spavor leaves the Calgary airport following his return to Canada after more than 1,000 days in a Chinese prison. (Colin Hall/CBC) Return of Kovrig, Spavor a ‘memorable moment’: Garneau

Garneau was in Calgary on Saturday to welcome the so-called “two Michaels” as they landed in Canada, almost three years after they were first detained in China.

“To see them actually land and to get off the airplane and touch down on Canadian soil was very emotional,” he said.

“I think you could sense a collective sigh of relief from Canada, and joy at seeing our two Michaels finally back on Canadian soil.”

From the persepective of the Canadian public, the events that led to the eventual return of Kovrig and Spavor unfolded quickly. Meng Wanzhou appeared virtually in a New York court Friday and it was announced that she had reached a deferred prosecution agreement relating to fraud charges laid against her by U.S. authorities.

She was then in a Vancouver courtroom, where the extradition case against her was dropped. She went directly to the airport and boarded a flight for China.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands with Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau in Ottawa on Friday to announce that Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig had been released from detention in China. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Soon after, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Spavor and Kovrig were on a flight to Canada. The two men landed Saturday morning.

“I think Canadians were very surprised. We’ve been working this in the background for a very long time,” Garneau said. He told Barton he had heard about the deferred prosecution agreement several weeks ago and said that “really was what opened the door to the return of the two Michaels.”

‘Very clear’ link between cases: Garneau

China has denied that there was any link between the cases of Meng Wanzhou and Kovrig and Spavor.

But the timing of the releases was noteworthy, he said. “It’s very clear … that the immediate return of the two Michaels linked that to the Meng Wanzhou case in a very direct manner,” Garneau said.

The foreign affairs minister also said he didn’t think the timing of the two men’s return had anything to do with the timing of the federal election Monday: “I think it just worked out that way.”

He also did not rule out the possibility of providing compensation to the two men.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that they’ve gone through an extraordinary ordeal in the past 1,019 days and that if there is any need for us to be there to support them, we will be there to support.”

Garneau said the detention of the two Michaels had harmed China’s image internationally, as shown by growing support for an international declaration against arbitrary detention.

“It’s fine for countries to have disagreements, but you cannot resort to arbitrarily putting citizens of another country in jail because you’re not happy with that country.”

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