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Opinion Canada isn’t to blame for the Meng Wanzhou mess – China is

Philip Calvert is a senior fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a senior research fellow at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at the University of Victoria. He served for 10 years as a diplomat in China and from 2012 to 2016 as Canada’s ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

The dispute between Canada and China over the Dec. 1 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and China’s retaliatory detentions of two Canadians living in China, is entering its sixth week. While many have expressed dismay over China’s actions, some have argued that Canada could have avoided this whole mess in the first place.

These critics argue that since officials in the Canadian government were aware of Ms. Meng’s impending arrest, they should have found a means to avoid this situation and its potentially explosive impact on relations with China. This could have been by demonstrating “creative incompetence” by missing Ms. Meng in Vancouver, or by finding a way to warn her off. Failure to arrest Ms. Meng, they say, would have avoided this disruption in Canada-China relations.

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This kind of frustration is understandable. But the suggestion that Canada should have circumvented the rules in this case is, simply, nonsense.

Our international obligations are clear. Articles 11.1 and 11.2 of the Canada-U.S. extradition agreement specifies that, upon receipt of the appropriate request and an indication of an intention to request extradition, the “requested state” – in this case, Canada – shall “take the necessary steps to secure the arrest of the person claimed.”

Canada’s legal obligation, upon receiving the request of the United States, was therefore to detain Ms. Meng. If Canadian officials had not lived up to this request – if they had deliberately missed her at the Vancouver airport, or had warned her ahead of time – they would have been in violation of this agreement. And if the United States became aware that Ms. Meng had been warned, as would likely have been the case, Washington would have been justifiably apoplectic.

Whatever the benefit of this approach for Canada-China relations, it is outweighed by the impact of such action on our crucial relations with the United States and on our credibility as a country that supports the rule of law. Would Canada want political expediency to trump treaty obligations in extradition requests it makes to the United States?

We would not be having this debate, of course, if the subject of the extradition request had been an executive of, say, Germany’s Siemens or Sweden’s Ericsson. Critics seem willing to suggest that somehow Canada should have gone against our legal obligations because we knew China’s response would be one of anger and retaliation. In other words, we should have rewarded China’s bad behaviour by giving it special treatment.

If anyone’s actions prior to Ms. Meng’s arrest should be questioned, it is those of Chinese, not Canadian, officials. It is in fact puzzling that they did not take action to warn her. Chinese diplomats are well-trained and sophisticated; they must have known of Canada’s extradition agreement with the United States, and of the arrest warrant issued for Ms. Meng on Aug. 22 by a New York court. Someone in the Chinese system clearly messed up. So it is puzzling to see these Canadian commentators appearing to line up with the Chinese government in laying the blame on Canada.

It will ultimately be those legal processes that will serve as the basis of Canada’s final decision on Ms. Meng’s extradition, whatever that decision is. Without solid legal analysis and the recommendation of a judge as a result of an independent judicial process, Canada would be vulnerable to accusations that it would be politicized – that it is either caving in to China, or being a toady of the United States.

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Canada supports the rule of law as a fundamental principle of its participation in international affairs and multilateral institutions. If we support the rule of law, we can’t pick and choose when it applies. This is the reason for our action on the Meng case, and it’s also our only way of navigating the competing demands of the United States and China in this challenging case. It is a value increasingly under threat in the world, but one that Canada continues to promote internationally, and that underpins our engagement with China and all other partners. China’s bullying response to a legitimate legal process should not distract us from this reality.

Blaming the federal government for not letting Ms. Meng get away will not restore Canada-China relations, nor will it hasten the release of the innocent Canadians caught in the middle of this conflict. In fact, it’s an argument that rests on a Faustian bargain – and one Canadians should not even consider making.

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