Luke Patey is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, in Copenhagen.
Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor began the new year as they ended the last: cut off from family and friends while languishing away in a Chinese prison. The year ahead will see a new parliamentary committee critically examine Canada’s relations with China and possible new ideas to secure the release of the two men. But it is crucial to recognize that Canada alone has limited power to push back. The new rallying cry in Ottawa must now be “strength in numbers.” Canada should look to its European and Asian partners, who also face China’s hostage diplomacy and trade restrictions, to create an international coalition against Beijing’s unwanted interference.
On the anniversary of China’s detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, column after column in the Canadian and international press advised Beijing that, by imprisoning the Canadians, it is only deepening anxieties in the West and Asia toward China’s rise and legitimizing calls from the United States for others to take a more aggressive line on Beijing.
But despite the hope that China’s leaders might listen to the better angels of their nature, we should accept that Beijing may want the world to see and fear the brazen power of its retaliation against Canada. The arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities on a U.S. warrant triggered China’s retaliatory detentions. Releasing the two Canadians, or relaxing its trade restrictions on Canadian exports, would be backing down from what Beijing sees as an attack on its national interests in a new strategic competition with the U.S. Keeping the men in prison, on the other hand, warns other countries of the consequences of crossing China’s red lines.
For more than a year now, the Trudeau government has stood up for the rule of law in Canada, but has neglected calls to take a stronger stand against China’s aggression. This is despite advice from former Canadian ambassadors to China and other experts to consider countermeasures such as placing legal trade restrictions on Chinese products and considering a withdrawal from the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Parliament has now taken matters into its own hands. Over protests from the Liberal minority government, a Conservative motion was passed last month to create a special committee on Canada’s relations with China. Mr. Trudeau, for his part, has tied his hopes to U.S. President Donald Trump making the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor a stipulation of a trade deal with China.
But even if the new committee is instrumental in advancing a stronger response, Canada cannot muster much pressure on China by itself. Neither is the U.S. a reliable ally under Mr. Trump. Instead, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne should revive efforts to gather international support to end China’s hostage diplomacy.
The verbal backing Canada has received from its international partners in Europe and Asia must now be developed into policy action. Beijing may brush off Canada’s possible withdrawal from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or its potential implementation of the Magnitsky Act to punish China’s human-rights offenders, but it will be hard to ignore if other countries follow suit. Canadians are, after all, not the only ones facing China’s ire.
Last November, the Chinese ambassador to Sweden threatened to ban Amanda Lind, the Swedish Culture Minister, from visiting China should a literary prize be awarded to Swedish publisher Gui Minhai, who like Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, is a political prisoner in China. While Sweden is not yet facing trade restrictions like Canada, China is threatening to cancel business delegations and tourism to the Scandinavian country.
Two Australian MPs have recently been blocked from entering China until, Beijing says, they “genuinely repent” their criticism of China’s human-rights record. Australian writer Yang Hengjun is also imprisoned in China and facing espionage charges. And China has banned coal shipments from Australia during the ongoing diplomatic tensions.
To build a coalition against China’s hostage diplomacy, we must recognize that the world’s democracies are far from helpless. China is more susceptible to outside pressure than is commonly understood, with its leaders often prioritizing strategic and economic interests above their political demands of foreign governments.
Mr. Trudeau may think strategic patience is the best response to China’s pressure, but inaction only legitimizes detentions as tools of influence, encouraging China and other authoritarian governments to use them. Mr. Trudeau may not be in power when such an incident occurs again, but Canadians will remain in harm’s way if our leaders continue to sit idly by.
Cut off from their families and loved ones, the despair Mr. Kovrig, Mr. Spavor and other political prisoners must feel in China is unimaginable. Ottawa must take a stand and show them that they are not alone.
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