Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia
Diplomacy is like chess, but more difficult and consequential.
In chess, two players take turns making moves as they seek to trap the other player in a “no-win” situation. Diplomacy often involves more than two players, each of whom can make multiple moves at the exact same time. And a single player can be caught in two or more traps.
Canada is presently caught in two traps involving China. The first began with a U.S. extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Ms. Meng’s extradition process could drag on for years, at considerable cost to two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – who have been detained in apparent retaliation. Canadian farmers are also paying a price, after China blocked billions of dollars of agricultural imports.
Yet releasing Ms. Meng – as Section 23(3) of the Extradition Act allows the Justice Minister to do at any point by reversing his “surrender order” – would annoy the U.S. government. It has an extradition treaty with Canada for a reason; namely, to secure custody of accused individuals who seek to escape the reach of its courts.
The second trap results from security concerns about Bell and Telus’s use of Huawei technology in their 5G networks. Banning that equipment could cost these Canadian companies billions of dollars by forcing them to break contracts and change suppliers. It may also result in further punitive measures by the Chinese government.
Yet not banning Huawei technology would also annoy the United States, which could limit Canada’s access to intelligence sharing via the Five Eyes, a network that also includes Britain, New Zealand and Australia.
Breaking out of these two traps will be difficult given that they stem from decisions made in Washington and Beijing. But it is possible – if Canada gives China and the U.S. what they each want most, while denying each of them something that they want slightly less. And crucially, these moves must be made simultaneously, so that each country’s “win” is balanced against its “loss.”
The Chinese want Ms. Meng released. Huawei is the crown jewel of Corporate China, and Ms. Meng is the daughter of its founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei.
And while the U.S. would be irritated if Canada released Ms. Meng, it knows the case is highly unusual, since individual corporate executives are rarely charged for bank fraud or sanctions violations. However, the U.S. could still pursue legal action against Huawei as a company.
Moreover, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly indicated a willingness to withdraw the extradition request in return for Chinese trade concessions. This would give Canada an easy out, since Section 46(1) of the Extradition Act requires the Minister of Justice to “refuse to make a surrender order if … the conduct in respect of which extradition is sought is a political offence or an offence of a political character.” Again, the minister can reverse a surrender order at any time.
The U.S. wants Huawei technology out of Western 5G networks because it could be exploited by China or other actors in espionage and cyberwarfare. It is important to understand the depth of this concern.
U.S. decision-makers rightly regard the internet as a front line in a global power struggle, and they know that Huawei is required under Chinese law to follow any and all directions from the Chinese government. They also know Huawei equipment suffers from poor quality control and therefore contains many security vulnerabilities; vulnerabilities that are no less serious for being unintentional.
China regards these security concerns as a thinly veiled effort to impede the growth of its leading company. But while China will be displeased if Canada bans Huawei technology from 5G networks, it must be expecting this decision, having seen Australia and New Zealand make similar moves already.
For a year now, Canada has been playing for time, hoping that either China or the U.S. will lose interest or change direction. That is not about to happen: China is unrelenting on Ms. Meng and the U.S. is unrelenting on Huawei.
Yet between these uncompromising positions, there is room for Canada to act. With two bold moves made simultaneously, we could break out of the China traps.
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