President Joe Biden's first meeting with a foreign counterpart since taking office was high on policy and low on pomp as the coronavirus forced him to convene virtually with Canada's Justin Trudeau.
President Joe Biden has declared Canada and the United States best friends, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the friendship "extraordinary" in a virtual meeting turning the page on the turbulent Donald Trump era.
"The United States has no closer friend than Canada," Biden said on Tuesday, setting the tone for the get-together conducted by video link between the White House and Trudeau's office in Ottawa.
Although Covid-19 restrictions kept the two leaders apart physically, they went out of their way to demonstrate that the giant neighboring countries are back to their traditional closeness after the tension of Trump's "America first" policies.
"We have a robust agenda today and we're all best served when the United States and Canada work together and lead together," Biden said in public remarks before heading into closed-door talks.
Repaying the compliment, Trudeau said they would work "together to get through Covid but also to make sure we're pulling our weight around the world and making the world a better and safer place for everyone."
Biden said he and Trudeau agreed to work toward achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
"We're launching a high-level, climate-ambition ministerial and to align our policies and our goals to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050," Biden said in a speech following a bilateral meeting with the Canadian leader.
Biden said both countries will work together to seek the release of two Canadians held by China.
A telling moment.— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) February 23, 2021
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to President Biden just now: "U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years."
'Roadmap' for better ties
Trudeau thanked Biden – who has put the United States back into the Paris climate accord on reducing global carbon emissions – for his policies on global warming.
"US leadership has been sorely missed over the past, uh, past years," he said in a not so hidden dig at Trump.
The White House is touting that Tuesday's extensive talks will provide a "roadmap" for better relations.
Trump, who recategorised Canada and other US allies as competitors, had a sometimes tense personal relationship with Trudeau.
By contrast, Trudeau was the first foreign leader to phone Biden after he won the November election and Trudeau was the first foreign leader the Democrat called after getting into the Oval Office.
The White House emphasised how US-Canada ties play an important role in multilateral settings, from the G7 to NATO, the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and the WTO.
But while Canada is looking forward to a more predictable behaviour from its largest trading partner, Biden has already introduced his own new source of friction by cancelling the cross-border Keystone XL pipeline project, citing environmental concerns.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to President Biden: "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."— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 23, 2021
Shared China concerns
Biden and Trudeau were addressing several mutual priorities, including climate change, revving up the North American economy, the Arctic, and threats to democracy in Myanmar and Venezuela.
"By being on the same line on several subjects, like climate change or economic revival, we can do more together," Trudeau's office said.
They will also wade into the thorny issue of China's "unfair economic practices," its human rights record, and Beijing's continued detention of two Canadian nationals, according to a senior US official, who asked not to be named.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were arrested in China in 2018 in what was seen as likely retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou that year on a US warrant.
"Certainly we expect the prime minister to raise it and the president is ready to discuss it," the official said.
Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau speaks after first bilateral meeting with Biden: "We are facing tough times, there's no doubt. But we're not facing them alone. Canada and the United States are each other's closest allies, most important trading partners, and oldest friends" pic.twitter.com/4zCNjV6Zno— CBS News (@CBSNews) February 23, 2021
Keystone XL pipeline
One area Biden and Trudeau did not comment on in the public portion of their remarks was the US decision to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a project fiercely opposed by environmentalists but backed by Ottawa and previously by Trump.
Biden rescinded the permit by executive order on his first day in office.
"The president made clear that this is a commitment he's made in the past, that it's not in the interests of the United States and that we want to try to address our climate crisis, while also creating good-paying union jobs," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
"The prime minister raised his concerns directly with the president, has previously, and he's, of course, welcome to today."
Although virtual, the talks closely follow the format of regular in-person bilateral leader meetings.
Also taking part were US Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, along with their Canadian counterparts.