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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol are seen before a meeting in his office on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Sept. 23.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned what he called “sham” referendums under way in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine, saying the votes are a way for the Kremlin to legitimize its seizure of Ukrainian lands.

“The situation we are facing now with these sham referendums going on in eastern and southern Ukraine right now is extraordinarily worrisome,” Mr. Trudeau said during a Friday news conference in Ottawa with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Mr. Trudeau said the Kremlin is holding the referendums in the occupied regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson so Moscow can accuse Ukrainians of invading Russia when their military forces attempt to take back villages and cities.

The Prime Minister said the referendums are a “flagrant violation” of international norms, and he called on the world to stand together in solidarity with Ukraine.

The South Korean leader and Mr. Trudeau also discussed the challenges presented by an increasingly combative China. Both countries are in the process of developing their own Indo-Pacific strategies. The region, which stretches from North America to India’s west coast, is expected to be a centre of economic growth for decades.

“For too long China and other autocracies have been able to play off neighbours and friends against each other by offering bits of access to their markets ... and the time is now where we actually look to co-ordinate strategically,” Mr. Trudeau said.

He added that Western democracies, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific, should co-operate with China on issues such as climate change, and compete with the country on trade.

Mr. Trudeau also signalled that Canada will be much more outspoken in rebuking China for its human rights abuses, particularly against its Uyghur Muslim minority.

“There are areas where we are going to need to challenge China on human rights, on respect of the international rules-based order, and doing that in a nuanced approach,” he said.

Also on Friday, he announced that he has appointed diplomat Jennifer May as Canada’s ambassador to China, with a mandate to speak out on human rights and the rule of law. The past two ambassadors to China – former cabinet minister John McCallum and corporate executive Dominic Barton – were criticized by parliamentarians for soft-pedalling Beijing’s human rights record.

In his remarks, President Yoon did not directly mention China, but he spoke about the need for South Korea to secure supplies of Canadian critical minerals to bolster its semiconductor industry and help its auto manufacturing sector transition to electric vehicles. Korea is home to two of the world’s largest automakers, Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Corp.

China has become a world leader in controlling supplies of critical minerals. Fearing Beijing could cut supplies at some point – as Russia has done with energy to Europe – South Korea, the United States, Germany and Japan are looking to Canada as an alternative source of the materials, which are necessary for manufacturing a variety of high-tech devices.

Mr. Yoon told reporters Korean businesses are keen to buy Canadian rare earth minerals, and to co-operate in the development of artificial intelligence.

The Canadian government is in the final stages of putting together its Indo-Pacific strategy, which is expected to stress the importance of widening the circle of possible trading partners in the region, and of boosting security and international assistance. This would have the effect of lessening Canada’s dependence on China.

The idea of the Indo-Pacific is a strategic shift, first championed by Japan and embraced by Australia and the U.S. The purpose of the concept is to build common cause between India and neighbours that have burgeoning middle-class populations and a shared interest in addressing China’s growing influence in the region, and who also fear Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea and other ocean trade routes.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly is expected to present the strategy to the federal cabinet in October, before Mr. Trudeau travels to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative summit in Thailand the next month.

Many of Canada’s major allies, including other Group of Seven countries, have already formulated their own Indo-Pacific strategies. The U.S. Indo-Pacific policy says China is using all of its economic, military, technological and diplomatic might to become the dominant player in the region.

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