APRIL 4, 2020
OTTAWA, CANADA — Parallel efforts to combat the coronavirus are fraying an already tense alliance as Justin Trudeau struggles to rely on the Trump administration for critical medical supplies, driving the prime minister to face a difficult relationship with China.
Trudeau announced Saturday that Canada is set to receive millions of masks from China within the next 48 hours as his government jostles for medical supplies and after U.S.-based manufacturer 3M said it got direction Friday from the Trump administration to stop exporting N95 respirators to Canada and Latin America.
“The U.S. would be hurting itself as much as Canada will be hurting if we see an interruption of essential goods and services flow back and forth across the border,” Trudeau said, adding that his government is having “constructive discussions” with different levels within the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump appeared to defend his decision at Saturday’s White House briefing.
“We’re working now with 3M to see whether or not that all works out, but we want them to help our country, and I think it’s going to be OK,” he said. “We need the masks. We don’t want other people getting it. … If people don’t give us what we need for our people, we’re going to be very tough, and we’ve been very tough.”
Turning to China requires its own complicated political calculus for Canada: The two countries have faced severe bilateral tensions for more than a year, triggered by the December 2018 arrest of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request. Chinese authorities detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor days later on allegations of endangering China’s national security.
China has also taken trade actions against Canadian products, including agricultural exports such as canola seeds.
But amid fierce international competition that has sent countries as well as individual American governors scourging the globe for suddenly precious equipment, Trudeau has dwindling options. The respirators have become critical tools for health professionals around the world in the fight against the coronavirus. And as Trudeau looks to places like China to buy medical supplies, he says Canadian officials are urging the Trump administration at many levels to keep critical goods and services flowing across the border.
“We have an enormous number of products that are essential for the United States in their fight against Covid-19,” Trudeau told reporters Saturday, insisting he wanted to avoid an escalation.
Trudeau said he’s planning to speak with Trump in the coming days about the matter. He said his message will include reminding the president that Canada supplies the U.S. with doctors and nurses, gloves, testing kits, and key ingredients for the N95 respirators themselves. Medical professionals from Canada have been crossing the border daily to work in the U.S., Trudeau said.
“We are not looking at retaliatory measures or measures that are punitive. We know that it is in both of our interests to continue to work collaboratively and cooperatively to keep our citizens safe,” he said.
Over the medium term, Canada is trying to help its domestic manufacturers turn their production capacity toward generating medical equipment. But until the retooled assembly lines are up to speed, Trudeau is looking for immediate sources of supplies.
“It is very important to keep global supply chains flowing,” Trudeau said. “We recognize there’s a pretty fierce global competition for all this necessary equipment. Everyone needs them.”
Trudeau said Canada’s shipment of “millions of masks” from China will arrive via chartered cargo flights. His government, he added, has also leased a warehouse in China to help collect and distribute the items as quickly as possible.
China has also launched a mission to burnish its image after being the first big epicenter of Covid-19 and has been offering its expertise and medical supplies to other parts of the world. On Saturday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters in a briefing that the Chinese government is sending the hard-hit state 1,000 ventilators.
Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, told a parliamentary committee in February that the “chill is real” in the relationship. He recalled “shaking and anger” on both sides when he assumed the post late last year.
China’s medical shipments to Canada in response to Covid-19 haven’t been the first sign of a thaw, and they follow Canadian efforts to help the Chinese respond to the virus.
In early February, the Canadian government issued a statement announcing it was sending approximately 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China to help the country control the outbreak of the coronavirus.