David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.
A year after the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, new reporting is shedding light on what actually happened and when. But we’re still a long way from understanding the fallout from the arrest, and what it tells us about China and our future.
It appears that Vancouver was the place the Americans selected in their bid to get the well-travelled Ms. Meng arrested because they deemed Canada the country most likely to comply with their request. Given the price we’ve paid since, that’s a dubious honour. But it’s also an indication of the extent to which a bipartisan cross-section of official Washington trusts Canada. That trust was not misplaced.
It’s also clear that Canada was given advance warning of the request, although not much. Canadian officials heard from the Americans on Nov. 30, the day before Ms. Meng’s arrival in Vancouver, allowing them the minimum amount of time to act.
But it was time enough for the team that considered the American evidence. The toughest calls in Ottawa always come with the tightest deadlines. Getting them right is the essence of a senior official’s job.
That said, it’s not clear that officials anticipated how furiously China would react, or the difficulty of managing an extended crisis in Canada-China relations. Having stepped up to make the right call, Ottawa then seemed to go into responsive mode, consistently a step behind a strident and formidably vengeful China.
Once the decision to arrest Ms. Meng was made, it was entirely appropriate to advise the Prime Minister – he was, after all, at a summit that included both U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
But we should be wary of the idea that the Prime Minister could or should have weighed in to cancel the arrest because of its impact on Canada-China relations. That would set a precedent whereby all future extradition requests concerning China, and – ultimately – any other country big enough to make life difficult for us, would follow a separate, political decision-making track. This would be exploited by China and other rising powers, and risk transforming Canada into a safe haven for fraudsters, sanction evaders and human-rights violators.
We should be equally dismissive of the objection that China’s consular officials weren’t informed of the arrest in a timely manner. When I served as ambassador, China was notoriously cavalier about informing us, even months later, of the arrest of Canadian citizens, particularly those of Chinese origin. Chinese officials were notified of Ms. Meng’s arrest in a fraction of the time they typically take to inform us when a Canadian is arrested.
That said, beyond simply advising the Chinese of the arrest, we probably should have reached out quickly to more senior Chinese officials to explain what had happened and where things might go. But given that our communicator-in-chief at that point was John McCallum, our garrulous former ambassador, it probably wouldn’t have helped much.
Ultimately, it’s hard not to feel that the tight time frame for decision making was a blessing, enabling us to do the right thing before other, less-principled agendas had time to emerge. They were not long in appearing. We should not underestimate how much more difficult managing the issue became once various high-level Ottawa insiders began to talk up the idea of abandoning the extradition process. It’s no wonder the Chinese were seriously confused – so were most Canadians.
Taking stock today, what’s most discouraging is our persistent failure to learn from the painful experiences of a difficult year, despite the fact that we’ve spent that time uncharacteristically focused on China. There has been a lot to take in. Along with the cruel detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, we’ve witnessed almost daily examples of Chinese brutality in Xinjiang and repression in Hong Kong, and mounting evidence of Beijing’s interference around the world. Yet, Ottawa continues to treat China as an old friend with whom we’ve had a temporary falling out.
We did the right thing a year ago, and we’re still doing it when it comes to Ms. Meng, who is, unlike our detained Canadians, being treated fairly and with respect. And we’re still paying the price China now exacts from any country that values the rule of law over the rule of Beijing – a new reality whose implications, a full year later, continue to elude us.
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