Senior officials from Canada and China met quietly in Ottawa last week to discuss relations that have deteriorated so badly that they could threaten Prime Minister Stephen Harper's planned visit to China in November.
Canada sees China as an important trading partner and in early 2012 Harper went to Beijing to pitch the idea of Canada as a potential oil supplier. The closeness of the ties are in question after two high-profile incidents.
In late July, Canada accused Chinese hackers of being responsible for an attack on a government computer. In early August, China detained a Canadian couple, Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt, on suspicion of spying.
A statement posted on the Chinese embassy's website said a delegation led by assistant foreign minister Zheng Zeguang met a series of senior Canadian officials for talks on Aug. 26.
"The two sides exchanged views on China-Canada relations as well as international and regional issues of common concern," the statement said.
Canadian officials had not mentioned the meeting to reporters.
The embassy and the office of Foreign Minister John Baird were not immediately available for comment. A spokesman for Harper, who flew to Europe on Tuesday, did not respond to a request for comment.
Harper is set to attend an Asian regional summit on Nov. 10 and 11. Both sides had sketched out plans for a three-day tour of Chinese cities on the sidelines of the summit but a well-placed Canadian official said the idea was now in doubt.
"It will be hard for the prime minister to do that if the Garratts are still detained," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Brock University professor Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served two tours in China, said it was significant that the Chinese delegation to Ottawa had met Ray Novak, Harper's influential chief of staff.
"It may be that Ray really wants to make clear that resolution of the Garratt incarceration is something that the prime minister takes very seriously and to impress upon the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs that this matter will have a significant impact on other aspects of the relationship if the Garratts are not released this fall," Burton said.
"But I am not confident that we can get movement on this as the Garratts are being held in a Chinese Security Ministry facility, not a civil prison."
China is investigating the Garratts for suspected theft of military and intelligence information and for threatening national security. Relatives of the couple have said the suspicions are unfounded. The Garratts ran a coffee shop in Dandong on the border with North Korea. Last November, he told parishioners in a Canadian church that he also ran a prayer and training facility that was frequented by North Koreans.
Last month, in what appeared to be a move to ease tensions, China's ambassador wrote an article for a major Canadian newspaper describing relations as good.