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29 September 2021

Why China’s hostage diplomacy will likely continue

Canada’s diplomatic stand-off with China over Huawei has come to an end. But the fall-out for Ottawa and the West could just be beginning.

By Megan Gibson

When two international flights touched down on 25 September – one in China, the other in Canada – a 33 month-long diplomatic stand-off was brought to an end. 

Meng Wanzhou, an executive at Huawei and heir apparent of the tech giant, received a hero’s welcome in Shenzhen, her company’s home city; she was greeted by exuberant crowds at the airport after reaching an agreement with the US for her release from house arrest in Vancouver. On the other side of the globe, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, widely known as “the two Michaels”, touched down in Calgary after more than 1,000 days in Chinese detention on spurious charges. The two men were greeted by a small group on the tarmac, which included the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who embraced them. While Canada has much to celebrate with the release of the two men, the ordeal has revealed much thornier issues for the nation – and sends an unequivocal warning to the rest of the world from China. 

The stand-off began in December 2018 when Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei and daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested in Vancouver at the request of the US. Washington sought Meng’s extradition on charges of bank and wire fraud, and conspiracies to commit bank and wire fraud, as well as claiming that Huawei had violated Iran sanctions. China threatened severe consequences and, just days later, two Canadians living in the country – Spavor, a businessman, and Kovrig, a former diplomat – were arrested on allegations of espionage. Few, however, believed that the detainment of the two Michaels was anything other than retaliation. 

While experts agree that the real conflict was between China and the US, which was pursuing the charges against Meng, Canada that was caught in the middle. From December 2018 onwards, tension between the two nations grew. Ottawa issued a travel advisory cautioning citizens about the possibility of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”, while Beijing urged its citizens to consider the “risks” of visiting Canada. Minor trade spats between the two countries soon followed. As Meng’s lawyers drew out the extradition process, she remained under house arrest in Vancouver; Spavor and Kovrig, meanwhile, faced an uncertain future in Chinese prison. 

But last week Meng and the US Justice Department reached an agreement in which she accepted responsibility for misrepresenting Huawei’s business dealings in Iran in exchange for dismissed charges and her release. Meng left her Vancouver home shortly after and boarded a flight. Within hours, China had released Spavor and Kovrig. 

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The trade of Meng for the Michaels is surely a relief for Trudeau, who narrowly won a snap election held on 20 September, but serious questions over the country’s relationship with China remain. “The Liberal government is going to have to make some decisions fairly quickly,” said Paul Evans, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of public policy and global affairs. First, “​​Trudeau is going to have to make a decision on [whether to allow] Huawei access to 5G here [in Canada].” With public opinion of China’s government in tatters among Canadians, and Trudeau’s next minority government especially susceptible to opposition in parliament, the prime minister is sure to face pressure to take a harder stance when dealing with Beijing.

Yet it’s not just Ottawa that will be reassessing the situation. While few believed that China’s detention of the two Michaels was legitimate, that Beijing made no attempt to pretend that they were anything other than hostages following Meng’s release suggests a nonchalance when it comes to disregarding international norms. “That Beijing did not delay releasing the Michaels further underscores the fact,” said Diana Fu, a political science associate professor at the University of Toronto and non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution. Despite official denials that the detention or release of the Canadians were in any way connected to Meng, in practice, Fu said, “the CCP was never shy about this being a deal: two Canadians for one Chinese”.

Moreover, the timing also signals that Beijing recognises there will be few meaningful consequences for its “hostage diplomacy”. Though Spavor and Kovrig’s ordeal in many ways revealed a particularly dark aspect of the CCP’s brutality, China’s rising power leaves Western nations, even the US, with few options for deft counter. It’s an issue with no clear resolutions. 

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“The world’s second largest economic power is also an aggressive, outwardly-looking authoritarian regime,” said Fu. “The two Michaels are not the first, nor only, hostages and they will not be the last.”

[See also: What Justin Trudeau’s narrow election victory means for Canada]