N.S. premier returns from China, says talk is key to easing tensions

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Premier Stephen McNeil says tensions between Canada and China won’t be resolved without the two sides talking.

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McNeil made the comments Thursday, less than 24 hours after returning from a three-week trade mission that included five days in China. Coincidentally, it was the same day the Chinese government formally arrested Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and accused them of espionage.

Kovrig and Spavor have been detained by Chinese officials since December, not long after Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, in Vancouver.

The premier acknowledged there are difficulties with the China-Canada relationship right now, but he said that can only be fixed through communications.

“Not having a conversation solves nothing,” he told reporters following a cabinet meeting in Halifax.

“Walking in and building a connection with each other allows you to have those kind of conversations.”

N.S. exports to China worth $800M

McNeil may have some of the best connections with China of any elected official in Canada and his most recent trip was the first by a Canadian politician since the arrest of Meng.

He’s been to China seven times since becoming premier in 2013, each time pursuing growth in exports and tourism, and the establishment of a direct flight between Halifax and China.

Nova Scotia’s exports to China are worth almost $800 million, with seafood — particularly lobster — accounting for much of that. McNeil believes that success is built largely on the relationship he’s established with Guangdong province Gov. Ma Xingrui.

“We’re pretty direct with one another,” said McNeil. “I think he appreciates that.”

That directness led to conversations about the issues between the two countries.

People need to feel safe

McNeil said the two sides talked about the need for people to feel safe travelling to one another’s country, particularly as they try to promote tourism links. Part of the Nova Scotia delegation included art exhibits featuring the work of Maud Lewis and six other Nova Scotia artists.

“If I’m coming here and asking Nova Scotians and Canadians to go into Guangdong province as a tourist, I need to be reassured that they can do so and feel free to experience what that province has to offer and, at the same time, be able to come back home when their vacation is over,” said McNeil.

He said his experience travelling to China was no different than any of his previous trips.

“I couldn’t have been greeted any better, quite frankly. I was greeted by an old friend,” said McNeil.

Chinese ambassador coming to Halifax this month

The premier said he offered to play a role in easing tensions between the two sides if Chinese officials thought that would be helpful, and he’d make the same offer to Ottawa.

While there’s been no ask at this time, he said China’s ambassador to Canada is scheduled to visit Nova Scotia at the end of the month and a cultural and business delegation from Guangdong would also visit later this year, ahead of another trip McNeil plans to China this year.

Ma Xingrui, the governor of Guangdong province, delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the West Kowloon terminus in Hong Kong on Sept. 22, 2018. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

While other parts of Canada have felt the effects of China closing its borders to products such as canola and soybeans, Nova Scotia has so far been immune from such actions. McNeil said it’s ultimately up to the Chinese government to make such decisions, but he’s hopeful he’s made the case during his visits for why no action should be taken against Nova Scotia exports by touting the province’s quality control measures.

“They understand the importance of the seafood going into that marketplace and it’s certainly our hope — and I think it’s [Ma’s] as well — that that trade continues at the rate and proceeds as it has been.”

McNeil’s trip also included stops in parts of Europe, where he promoted seafood exports, as well as direct travel links to Halifax. The premier said broadening trade customers leads to sustained high prices, which benefits the industry and its workers here.

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