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 as a diplomat in China and from 2012 to 2016 as Canada’s ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
With the detention of Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave and working for the International Crisis Group, China appears to be raising the stakes on the Huawei issue. What Beijing may not realize is that this attempt at intimidation is a dead end.
According to Chinese media, Mr. Kovrig is being accused of endangering national security, but there are few details about his detention.This should be seen as a direct reaction to the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei and daughter of the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei. Ms. Meng was detained at the request of the United States, which is seeking her extradition to face charges of fraud linked to information she provided to U.S. financial institutions about her company’s ties to a Hong Kong firm doing business in Iran, opening the banks to risk of violating U.S. sanctions. Beijing reacted with fury to this action, threatening serious consequences unless Canada releases her immediately.
This escalation is part of China’s typical playbook and fits in with the reward-and-punishment approach it often takes to international diplomacy. This was demonstrated in 2014, when China arrested Kevin and Julia Garratt on charges of spying, in response to Canada’s arrest of Su Bin, a Chinese businessman charged with stealing U.S. fighter jet secrets. It took two years and high-level negotiations to obtain their release.
If China is trying to pressure Canada to release Ms. Meng in exchange for Mr. Kovrig, it won’t work. Canada’s judicial system is designed to be independent and free from political influence: More than one Canadian cabinet minister, over the years, has had to resign for improper contact with judges on cases of concern to them. Ms. Meng’s extradition hearing will have to run its course, regardless of the actions of the Chinese government and despite the fallout. Chinese officials should be aware of this: They were equally frustrated years ago when told that Canadian politicians could not overrule Canadian courts and simply order the extradition of accused criminal Lai Changxing. Mr. Lai was eventually returned to China only after a long and thorough judicial process and China’s agreement to let Canada monitor his health before his trial.
China’s actions on Ms. Meng and now Mr. Kovrig reveal, once again, a blind spot in the country’s willingness to accept the limits on power in countries where the rule of law prevails. Its diplomats are generally sophisticated and worldly, and many of them, no doubt, understand the realities of Canada’s justice system. Others, despite this experience, still may believe that, when push comes to shove, power will triumph over a system based on rule of law. Certainly, this is the perspective of China’s leadership.
Since its economic reforms were launched by Deng Xiaoping nearly 40 years ago, China has become an increasingly powerful player on the world stage. Under President Xi Jinping, this power has been more openly exercised, often taking the form of a brittle nationalistic arrogance, especially in response to criticisms on issues such as its expansion of power in the South China Sea, and when powerful elites are threatened.
China wants to be seen as a supporter of globalism and the rules-based system, yet its response to Ms. Meng’s arrest, and particularly its detention of Mr. Kovrig, belies these claims.
The Trudeau government came into power determined to put Canada-China relations on a more positive footing than had existed under the Harper Conservatives, to the point of being accused by some of naiveté. Mr. Kovrig’s detention has exposed the darker side of China’s international behaviour and the lengths it is willing to go to achieve its goals. Although Canada is heading into a difficult period for the relationship, this doesn’t reduce its importance to Canadian interests.
If anything, Canada will need to ensure it maintains strong lines of communication with China, while at the same time ensuring that its approach is based on a realistic understanding of the stark realities of the Chinese system.