Yves Tiberghien is a professor of political science, director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia and senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Canada is mired in a months-long crisis with China, and it seems to get worse by the day. Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been formally arrested as apparent retaliation for the Canadian detainment of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom Huawei, and the daughter of its founder. China has also sentenced two other Canadians to death, and has since unleashed painful embargoes on Canadian canola and pork against our farmers.
This week’s visit to China by members of the Canada-China Legislative Association helped maintain open channels of communication, but it remained a symbolic visit. Meanwhile, a recent report revealed that neither our Prime Minister nor our Foreign Minister have been able to connect with their counterparts in Beijing since December.
Calls for Canada to escalate sanctions against China at the United Nations or World Trade Organization are morally pleasing, but futile. Yes, Chinese actions are infuriating – but when has a middle power taken on a great power in a fist fight and won?
Solving the crisis requires honesty about its origins, understanding the incentives of the other side and careful strategizing of options and their likely impact. We need to focus on the following key questions: Would such steps have any chance of freeing the two Canadians currently held in retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest? Do they have any chance of lifting the sanctions on Canadian farmers hit by sanction after sanction while also facing a difficult U.S. market? Sadly, the answer to both questions is no – and once we accept that, then we need to undertake a good-faith effort to make sense of the current battle.
This is not, after all, routine: This is the highest-stakes confrontation between Canada and China since the start of diplomatic relations in 1970, and is itself a byproduct of the current trade war between the United States and China. President Donald Trump is gambling that U.S.-China trade relations and the global trading system can leverage China into reforming its own trading system and economic model, and also perhaps stop its rise. The most recent U.S. actions against Huawei also signal his administration’s intention to cripple China’s most successful electronics firm. Yet history shows that a purely coercive approach to diplomacy rarely yields lasting positive outcomes with any opponent.
So a brawl is not a path to victory for Canada. This is a chess game with a sophisticated opponent. The current Chinese system is the result of the country’s traumatic pathway to modernity that involved colonization, 50 years of war and invasion, and gradual reform after the death of its mercurial postwar leader. The general trajectory since 1980 has been one of great progress, even if there’s still a long way to go toward a regime that fully respects human rights and the rule of law. We must calculate not just our options, but also the chain of countermoves to any moves Canada might take and their longer-term effects.
Ottawa can start by recognizing that the Meng affair is not a case of rule of law, but a case of application of raw international power by one country against another in the pursuit of its own foreign-policy goals. And for Canada, it is the ultimate curveball vis-a-vis its extradition treaty obligations to the United States. This attempt at “lawfare” marks the first time the United States has sought the arrest of a high-level foreign executive through extradition from a third country for violations of its own national sanctions on a fourth country – in this case, Iran. It is happening in the wake of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the UN Security Council-approved Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran and its current extraterritorial pressure campaign against that country. Our European allies support Canada, but are highly critical of the Trump administration’s unilaterally coercive approach to Iran and the Meng arrest.
Canada, then, has an opportunity to maximize the space for internationalists and reformists within the Chinese system, rather than providing easy ammunition to security hawks. The key is to defuse the growing cycle of sanctions and countersanctions, words and counterwords, and to open up space.
First, the Prime Minister should send a high-level envoy to China. A complete and honest recognition of how exceptional the Meng extradition request was, as well as a clear willingness to listen to China’s grievances, would open up space for de-escalation.
Second, the Meng affair needs to be wrapped up quickly. This may happen either through U.S.-China negotiations, or the Canadian legal or ministerial process, but a resolution will be the key to freeing Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor and resuming functional relations with China, as hinted again in accusatory remarks this week by Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye: "The knots shall be untied by those who got them tied.”
The bottom line, as history has taught us, is this: de-escalate. Understand the psychology of the other side. Don’t confront the full force of a more powerful opponent, but work to understand the driver of that force and then defuse it. Think outcome, not moral righteousness – and, as in the game of chess, think several moves ahead.