China said on Wednesday that it is blocking some imports of the agricultural product canola from Canada because of fears of insect infestation.
The move, which comes amid heightened tensions over Canada’s arrest of a Chinese tech executive, is seen by some as a new tactic to seek leverage over Ottawa.
China suspended canola imports from a Canadian company “in accordance with laws and regulations and international practise”, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a daily news briefing.
He cited “harmful organisms” that he did not identify further, and said China’s government “needs to protect the health and safety of its own people”.
“I can tell you responsibly that the Chinese government’s decision is definitely well-founded,” Lu said. “Upon verification, China customs has recently detected dangerous pests in canola imported from Canada many times.”
One of Canada’s largest grain processors, Richardson International Ltd., said on Tuesday that China had revoked its permit to export canola there.
Some saw that as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Canada announced recently that it is going ahead with an extradition hearing for Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder. Canada arrested her at the request of the US, where she is wanted on fraud charges for allegedly misleading banks about the company’s dealings with Iran.
Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in a statement that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency conducted investigations after China issued notices of non-compliance on canola seed imports, including nine since January. She said the agency had not identified any pests or bacteria of concern.
China, whose rapid growth has made it an important market for many countries, has a history of using commercial retaliation against those at odds with Beijing.
The most recent high-profile target was South Korean retailer Lotte, which sold land to the Seoul government for a US anti-missile system opposed by Beijing.
Authorities closed most of the company’s 99 supermarkets and other outlets often alleging safety violations and a theme park project.
China suspended a trade deal with Norway and restricted imports of Norwegian salmon after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo in 2010.
It stopped buying fruit from the Philippines during a dispute over territory in the South China Sea.
Britain and other countries also faced retaliation over meetings with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, considered a dangerous separatist by Beijing.
China receives about 40 per cent of Canada’s canola exports, and the revocation of Richardson’s permit hurts the entire chain of industries involved in the market, the Canola Council of Canada has said.
Canola prices already have been hit by China’s retaliatory tariffs on US agricultural exports. Further cutbacks on Chinese buying would deal a major blow to what is a lifeline for agriculture in western Canada.
“We are working very, very hard with the Chinese government on this issue,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Tuesday.
China has warned of serious consequences if the Huawei executive is not released.
China arrested two Canadians on Dec 10 in what was widely seen as an attempt to pressure Canada.
After Meng’s arrest, a Chinese court also sentenced a Canadian to death in a sudden retrial, overturning a 15-year prison term handed down earlier.