By Alexandra Alper and David Ljunggren
WASHINGTON/OTTAWA, Feb 23 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought on Tuesday to turn the page on the Trump era, stressing the countries’ deep ties and pledging to work together on COVID-19 and climate change in their first bilateral meeting.
“The United States has no closer friend, no closer friend than Canada,” Biden told Trudeau via an electronic video link with the Canadian leader and top aides. “That’s why you were my first call as president (and) my first bilateral meeting,” he said.
The two leaders “robust” agenda would address the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, climate change, refugees and migration, fighting for democratic values around the globe and strengthening democracies at home, Biden said.
Trudeau welcomed the Biden administration, citing in particular Washington’s renewed attention to climate change in contrast to former U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Thank you, again, for stepping up in such a big way on tackling climate change. U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years,” the Canadian leader said.
Canada has often been a U.S. president’s first foreign stop, but the COVID-19 pandemic turned the sit-down between the two leaders and some of their top deputies into a virtual affair.
Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other officials, all wearing dark masks, sat at a long table in a White House meeting room, near a large video screen beaming in Trudeau’s image from Ottawa.
It was not clear the meeting would result in any new deal on issues including Canada’s access to vaccines produced in the United States or a shared standoff with China over the detention of a Huawei executive.
It is expected to yield a shared document outlining cross-government collaboration on a wide range of issues, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters.
Biden irritated Ottawa shortly after taking office on Jan. 20 by blocking the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline project to pump oil sands crude from Alberta to Nebraska, and proposing a “Buy American” program aimed at directing more U.S. spending toward domestic manufacturers.
But the two leaders made clear they wanted to put the dispute behind them and work together.
A Biden administration official said the U.S. president would raise the topic of the countries’ investment in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump often disparaged allies for their shortfall in funding the mutual defense organization.
Trudeau was the first world leader to congratulate Biden when the Democrat was declared the winner of the November election, illustrating the degree to which the close U.S. ally looks to move on from Trump’s four years in office.
The Republican former president, who often clashed with traditional allies on trade, imposed tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel. He traveled only once to Canada for a G7 meeting in 2018, and blasted Trudeau for being “very dishonest and weak” after he left.
Trump also forced the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, talks that consumed Trudeau’s government for years.
Tuesday’s session began with a 45-minute meeting between Biden, Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and their Canadian counterparts.
An expanded meeting following that was expected to include a broader set of officials. Trudeau was accompanied by his finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, and others. Biden and Trudeau planned to address the public around 5:45 p.m. (2245 GMT).
The U.S. official signaled little willingness to expand Canada’s access to vaccines manufactured in the United States, saying Washington’s focus is on vaccinating Americans.
The official said the White House expected Trudeau to raise the issue of two Canadians detained by Beijing and charged with espionage after Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd , on a U.S. arrest warrant.
The official said the White House believed the Canadians were unjustly detained and would work to secure their release but added it would not meddle in independent Department of Justice matters. Meng remains under house arrest.
Trudeau also wants Canada and the United States to collaborate more closely on manufacturing electric vehicles and supplying critical minerals needed to make batteries for cars and other clean technologies, Trudeau told Reuters earlier this month.
Canada also seeks exemptions to a U.S. effort to ensure federal agencies buy American-produced goods. That could hurt Canada, given how tightly the two nations’ economies are integrated. (Reporting by Alexandra Alper and David Ljunggren; additional reporting by Stee Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Heather Timmons and Peter Cooney)