United States president Joe Biden has had his first bilateral meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau virtually, with the coronavirus pandemic stripping the occasion of its customary Oval Office fanfare.
The two leaders – Mr Biden in the Roosevelt Room at the White House and Mr Trudeau in the prime minister’s office in Ottawa – delivered friendly opening remarks in front of the media.
“The United States has no closer friend, no closer friend, than Canada,” Mr Biden said.
Mr Trudeau, in turn, commended Mr Biden for quickly rejoining the Paris climate accord, a worldwide pact to curb climate emissions that Donald Trump walked away from early in his term.
“And I have to say as we were preparing the joint rollout of the communique on this, it’s nice when the Americans are not pulling out all the references to climate change and instead adding them in.”
In remarks at the end of the talks, Mr Biden for the first time publicly spoke out against the detention of two Canadian citizens imprisoned in China in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Mr Biden said of the two Canadians. “We are going to work together until their safe return.”
Mr Trudeau, for his part, publicly thanked Mr Biden for his support in seeking the men’s release.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in China following the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada after the US requested her extradition to face charges that the Chinese telecom company executive committed wire and bank fraud and violated US sanctions on Iran. She denies the allegations.
China lashed out at Canada last week for joining the US and 56 other countries in endorsing a declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign citizens for political purposes.
US presidents traditionally invite the Canadian prime minister for their first meeting with a world leader.
The two leaders agreed to a “road map” outlining how the neighbouring countries will work together to fight Covid-19, curb climate emissions and pursue other shared priorities.
Mr Trudeau again raised with Mr Biden the idea of allowing Canada, which is struggling to vaccinate its population, to buy vaccines produced in the US, according to a senior Canadian government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail the private talks.
Mr Trudeau brought up the issue when the two leaders spoke by phone last month, Mr Biden’s first call to a foreign leader as president.
But Mr Biden’s “first priority” remains “ensuring every American is vaccinated,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said ahead of the meeting. Mr Biden’s team offered the same message to Mr Trudeau privately.
The prime minister’s office said in a statement that Mr Biden and Mr Trudeau discussed how the pandemic “will not end until everyone, everywhere has access to a vaccine” and “the importance of avoiding measures that may constrain the critical trade and supply-chain security between our countries”.