OTTAWA — Chinese courts just dropped a pair of global headline-grabbing decisions that bring the bad blood in the Canada-China relationship to the center of the 2021 federal election campaign.
Foreign policy debate will focus on bilateral tensions that can be traced back nearly 1,000 days to China’s arrests of two Canadians on spying charges. During that time, Canada has also been demanding clemency for a third citizen who’s facing the death penalty in China for drug trafficking.
This week, Chinese courts delivered an 11-year jail sentence to Michael Spavor and upheld the death sentence for Robert Schellenberg.
Another Chinese court ruling for a third Canadian, Michael Kovrig, is likely close behind — and it could land in the middle of Trudeau’s reelection bid, which he plans to announce on Sunday.
Trudeau’s main rivals are already talking about what they would do about Canada’s clash with China.
The opposition Conservatives are accusing the prime minister of being too soft on Beijing. The New Democrats say Canada must do more to rescue its citizens.
Campaign-trail rhetoric aside, Canada appears to have few options and little leverage in the cases of Spavor, Kovrig and Schellenberg.
The 2018 arrests behind this week’s ruling
The cases are widely seen as connected to senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s fight in a Canadian court against a U.S. extradition request.
Chinese authorities rounded up Kovrig and Spavor on spying charges in December 2018, nine days after Canadian police arrested Meng in Vancouver on the American warrant related to fraud allegations against her in the U.S.
Meng’s arrest angered Beijing and the legal ordeals of the Canadians are seen by many as retaliation for her arrest.
Close observers suggest it’s no coincidence the Canadians’ Chinese courtroom developments picked up as Meng’s extradition hearings started to wind down in Vancouver.
Spavor intends to appeal his 11-year sentence. The court date for Kovrig’s verdict has yet to be set, Canadian officials say.
A few weeks after Meng’s arrest, a Chinese court changed Schellenberg’s initial sentence of 15 years for drug trafficking to a death sentence. On Tuesday, Schellenberg lost his death penalty appeal and his case will move to a higher court.
Trudeau condemned the Spavor decision as “absolutely unacceptable and unjust.” The trial, he added, “did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law.”
The line Canada won’t cross
Solutions to the problem appear to be limited for middle-power Canada, which boasts about its adherence to the rule of law and respect for the independent judiciary.
Trudeau’s Liberals and the Conservatives, their main foes, have pledged to honor Canada’s extradition treaty with the U.S.
The detained Canadians are unlikely to see any change in their legal situations unless Meng is freed — a step Trudeau has firmly refused to take.
When asked whether releasing Meng to free the two Michaels was an option, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong told POLITICO that his party, much like the Trudeau government, won’t bend on Canada’s commitment to the rule of law.
“We have to allow the judicial proceeding taking place in Vancouver to play itself out,” Chong said of the Meng case. “Interfering in that judicial proceeding is not an option.”
Playing politics with policy
The Conservatives have long tried to make gains on Trudeau’s China policy by accusing him of shrinking away from Beijing.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has framed Trudeau’s approach to China as a “failure of leadership.” He has urged him to “finally grow a spine” and ban Huawei 5G gear from Canadian networks. He insists the prime minister lacks a plan to free Kovrig and Spavor.
Following Spavor’s sentencing this week, O’Toole told reporters that Trudeau “has been offside with respect to China” during his six years in power. On Tuesday, O’Toole called on Canada to boycott February’s Beijing Olympics.
“We have to stand up to China's threats and belligerence,” Chong said. “By standing up to these threats, we make it clear to China that this form of hostage diplomacy is not going to work. The government was too late in waking up to that reality.”
Indeed, Trudeau has avoided open confrontation with Beijing in a delicate effort to free Spavor and Kovrig.
In dealing with Beijing, Trudeau has had to consider how much trade-dependent Canada relies on China, its second-biggest partner, to buy products ranging from iron ore to canola to lobster.
He’s had to counterbalance economic realities with political ones. The high profile of the drawn-out cases of Kovrig, a diplomat on leave, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, have made bilateral tensions a pressing concern for Trudeau.
After Spavor’s sentence this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau offered a hint at the dilemma.
Garneau stressed to reporters how the Trudeau government has worked to rally international allies to pressure Beijing on the cases of the detained Canadians and to end arbitrary detention in general.
“It's important to send that message to China, so that if we do have relations with China — which we want to have — that they be done within international rules based law,” said Garneau. “Canadians understand the complex relationship that we have with China. I think that they understand that we are doing everything possible.”
Beijing took notice of the Canadian and international reactions to the Spavor and Schellenberg decisions. The Chinese government also sent a warning.
“A word for the Canadian side: the attempt to conduct ‘megaphone diplomacy’ and gang up on China failed in the past, and will never have its way in the future,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement posted on a government website.
Where the Liberals stand
The prime minister’s lack of a public, comprehensive China policy could make for a political target in the election.
A recent article in Maclean’s noted that Trudeau has had four foreign ministers since becoming prime minister in 2015, but none with a mandate letter that even mentions China.
Entering the election campaign, polls suggest a harder line toward China would be good politics in Canada.
Pollsters have found the public’s positive opinions about China plunged to new lows after the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor — and that any improvements in sentiment hinge on China freeing them.
Trudeau has called the arrests of the “two Michaels” arbitrary on “trumped-up” charges. But he’s been reluctant to take unilateral steps that might provoke Beijing:
— Nearly three years after it launched a national security review, Canada remains the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance yet to announce whether it plans to restrict Huawei gear from its 5G infrastructure.
— When Parliament overwhelmingly supported a symbolic motion in February declaring Beijing's mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide, Trudeau and his 36 cabinet ministers abstained from voting.
— And in April, POLITICO reported that Canadian officials told organizers of the Halifax International Security Forum (HFX), a major defense conference to which Ottawa is a top sponsor, that the government would pull its support if its prestigious John McCain Prize went to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan later denied the Trudeau government threatened to withhold funding.
Where the Conservatives stand
Chong argues Trudeau has failed to play hardball with Beijing even when the U.S. has pressed Ottawa to cooperate.
For example, he criticizes Trudeau’s inaction on Huawei gear and questions Trudeau’s decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank even though the Obama administration had urged Canada not to.
Chong, who was sanctioned in May by Beijing in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed on Chinese officials, said the Conservatives would take a more-forceful approach.
He said the Conservatives, if elected, would immediately ban Huawei 5G equipment, withdraw Canada from the AIIB and seek to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partnership, which includes Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.
Chong said the Conservatives would also put an onus on Canadian importers to certify products they're importing from China have not been produced using forced labor.
He also argued the Conservatives would work much more closely with allies, and especially with the U.S., when it comes to freeing the two Michaels.
“The U.S. is a superpower, it has immense tools at its disposal to put pressure on the Chinese authorities,” Chong said.
Where the U.S. fits in
President Joe Biden has vowed to confront China, which he’s called America’s “most serious competitor,” on any challenges it poses to U.S. prosperity, security and democracy. The president also said the U.S. would counter China’s “aggressive, coercive action.”
Since Biden’s arrival, the U.S. has opted for multilateral action to counter China’s aggression rather than the Trump administration’s go-it-alone strategy.
The new U.S.-led, coordinated approach should help Canada stand up to China.
Trudeau uses every meeting with allies — including with Biden — to put pressure on China to release the two Michaels.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said in February after a virtual summit with Trudeau. “We’re going to work together until we get their safe return.”
Following Biden’s arrival in the White House, the Trudeau government carefully started hardening its approach to China.
— In March, Canada joined allies in imposing sanctions on individuals and entities allegedly linked to abuses against Uyghurs in China. It has called for Beijing to provide independent investigators “unfettered access” to the region.
— Earlier this year, Canada spearheaded an international effort to publicly pressure countries that arrest foreign nationals to gain leverage over other states. But the declaration on arbitrary detention doesn’t name China.
— In June, Canada joined 43 other states at the United Nations in signing a joint statement condemning the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang region and raising concerns about Hong Kong and Tibet. Canada’s participation sparked testy exchanges between Trudeau and Beijing.
Trudeau’s predicament has even prompted other Western democratic leaders to look to him for his thoughts on dealing with China.
In June, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson invited Trudeau to lead the G-7’s discussion on the alliance’s approach to Beijing, a senior Canadian official told POLITICO. Trudeau also used the pull-aside at the summit with Biden to once again raise the issues of China and the two Michaels.
The heart of the crisis
The Canada-China standoff revolves around a complicated legal battle that has locked Ottawa into an almost impossible position.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, is accused of fraud in connection to her alleged violation of American sanctions on Iran. She has denied wrongdoing.
Her Canadian court process to avoid extradition and appeals could drag on for years.
The three Canadians are unlikely to see any change in their legal situations unless Meng is freed. U.S. Department of Justice officials have held talks with Meng's legal team about the possibility of a deferred prosecution agreement, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
Garneau told reporters Wednesday that Dominic Barton, Canada's ambassador to China, spent three weeks in Washington this past spring in talks with Biden administration officials about ways to secure the release of the two Michaels.
Kirsten Hillman, Trudeau's envoy to the U.S., has also been working on a constant basis with American officials, he added.
“I can't go into further details, but those intense discussions continue,” said Garneau, who later declined to offer more on whether the talks have involved the possible return of Meng to China.
In the meantime, Beijing’s pressure tactics have been feeding into Trudeau’s cautiousness.
Veteran Liberal MP John McKay said the two Michaels’ situations stifle Ottawa’s freedom to act when it comes to the diplomatic and security concerns related to China.
“That just shows you hostage diplomacy works, doesn’t it?” said McKay, who chaired Parliament’s public safety and national security committee.
He said Canada is uniquely vulnerable as an open society with a lot of its GDP dependent on trade.
Before the two Michaels were arrested, Trudeau made a strong push to deepen Canada’s business ties with Beijing with the hope of striking a free trade deal.
But Canada put the effort on ice last year as Trudeau’s foreign minister criticized China’s “assertive, coercive diplomacy.”
The stark reality is that Canada doesn’t have a ton of leverage — something that could change following the departure of the Trump administration.
McKay said Canada’s foreign policy has been summed up like this: Don’t get too far ahead of the Americans and don’t get too far behind.
“We have our limitations,” said McKay. “For four years, the Americans have been AWOL and now I think the Americans are back.”
Real life vs. reality
A senior Canadian government official told POLITICO last month that pundits, the media and politicians who pressure Ottawa to hit hard should be realistic about Canada’s heft in the world.
“There's always this talk as if Canada determines its own foreign policy by itself and we don’t,” the insider said. “We like to say that we’re soft power or that we're a midsized country — we’re not even really a midsized country.”
They added that Canada really does “punch way above” its weight. But that, regardless of who is in power, Canada’s foreign policy is successful when it has lots of trade deals and lots of multilateral relationships.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing from 2012 to 2016, told POLITICO that if Ottawa wants to free the two Michaels, Washington clearly has to be involved.
“They have more levers,” said Saint-Jacques, who was Kovrig’s boss at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. “On our side, there’s not much that we can do.”
Biden’s personal commitment to work toward securing the Canadians’ freedom was received in Canada with, at least on the surface, relief. But delivering on the vow could prove far more complex.
Biden’s tough stance toward China — and his efforts to rally other Western democracies to confront Beijing — have added layers to the stalemate.
Arnold Chacon, interim chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, recently told a Wilson Center webinar that his government is treating the two Michaels as though they were Americans.
Indeed, Kovrig has a direct connection to powerful players close to Biden. Before his appointment, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was on the board of the International Crisis Group, which employed Kovrig. And Robert Malley headed the ICG before becoming Biden’s special envoy for Iran; he has campaigned publicly for Kovrig's release.
Hillman told the same event that Canada is grateful for the vocal and very specific support the two Michaels have been getting from the top of the Biden administration. She said she has an engagement nearly every week with the administration or members of Congress about Kovrig and Spavor.
The Meng case is top of mind for Beijing as well. Late last month, a top Chinese official demanded the U.S. drop its extradition case against her.
China’s increasingly brazen arrests of foreign nationals highlights a tension that is squeezing democracies.
A source familiar with Canada's work to lead dozens of nations in signing a joint declaration condemning arbitrary detentions as a tool of foreign policy said it was a response to the arrests of the two Michaels. But the statement’s failure to actually mention China highlights the hesitancy of many democratic governments to be anything but coy with Beijing.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials brought up the two Michaels’ peril in conversations with Chinese officials and with allies. Two former senior U.S. officials told POLITICO that the U.S. government used the Canadians’ detention to urge other nations against letting Huawei build their 5G infrastructure. The argument was simple: How could you deny that Huawei was an arm of the Chinese government, when Beijing was willing to take hostages and use extortion on the company’s behalf?
Publicly and privately, the Trump administration urged the Chinese to free Kovrig and Spavor, and said they were treating them as if they were detained Americans. The Biden administration has maintained that posture — thus far, without results.
At the end of the G-7 summit, Trudeau told reporters there was a very clear consensus among the leaders that what happened to the two Michaels should have never occurred.
“This approach is not just harming their standing in the global economy, but is also harming their own interests,” Trudeau said of Beijing. “It is counterproductive for China to be engaging in this and that is something that we are all speaking with one voice on.”
Betsy Woodruff Swan contributed to this report.
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