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In this file photo taken on Aug. 18, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

DAVE CHAN/AFP/Getty Images

The disintegration of public discourse in the Twitter age was under way long before Donald Trump came to power. The soon-to-be former U.S. President’s tweets over the past four years are even starting to look dignified compared with those trending on social media these days.

Consider the recent tweet from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who condemned the alleged “murder” of Afghan civilians by Australian soldiers. His tweet was accompanied by a fake photo of an Aussie soldier holding a knife at the throat of an Afghan child, sparking even more vitriolic exchanges between Australian and Chinese officials and further poisoning an already bitter relationship between Australia and its biggest trading partner.

Canada and Australia have adopted vastly different strategies in dealing with China, and each has obtained rather inconclusive results. Compared with the increasing ugliness of the cold war between China and Australia, Canada-China relations look almost cordial. But at least no one can accuse the Australian government of cowering in the face of Chinese bullying.

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The extreme delicacy with which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has treated China in the two years since Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were imprisoned there has not made Canada look good. Mr. Trudeau’s sheepish public declarations regarding the detention of the two men – in defiance of their basic rights – has led some Canadians to wonder whether our once empathetic Prime Minister has become too detached.

The almost comical manner with which the Trudeau government has played for time on banning Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from participating in the construction of Canada’s 5G networks speaks volumes about its inertia. It has often seemed as if Ottawa has hoped the problem would just go away – or that somebody else would spare it the inconvenience of having to ruffle feathers to solve it. That is indeed what appears to be happening, as Canada’s telecom companies have decided for themselves to build out their 5G networks sans Huawei.

Alas, the same strategy appears to be at play in winning the release of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig. The Trudeau government is counting on the Trump administration to offer a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) to Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in exchange for a partial admission of guilt on fraud charges involving the violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

A recent Wall Street Journal report suggesting the U.S. Justice Department has been negotiating a DPA with Ms. Meng’s lawyers raised hopes that Mr. Spavor’s and Mr. Kovrig’s long ordeal may soon come to an end. The two Canadians have been left to endure the indignities of Chinese prison life on unsubstantiated espionage charges, while Ms. Meng awaits the outcome of her extradition to the United States at one of her luxurious Vancouver homes, surrounded by all the material comforts her wealth allows.

Ms. Meng is reported to be resisting the U.S. offer, insisting she did nothing wrong. But that may just be a delay tactic as she negotiates a plea deal. Her lawyers may also still think she has a chance of escaping extradition on the grounds that Canadian authorities allegedly violated her rights at the time of her arrest at Vancouver International Airport. She would be wiser to take a DPA now rather than risk facing a trial in the United States, where courts would not take lightly the accusations that she willfully deceived U.S. banks about Huawei’s business in Iran.

Some observers have suggested that president-elect Joe Biden could simply drop the charges against Ms. Meng as a goodwill gesture aimed at resetting the U.S.-China relationship. Ms. Meng should not bet on that. If anything, Mr. Biden is likely to take a more muscular (albeit principled) approach to China than Mr. Trump, who said after Ms. Meng’s arrest that he might consider using her as a bargaining chip in U.S.-China trade talks.

Thankfully, that never happened. Such a gesture would have legitimized any claim that the charges against Ms. Meng, which were brought after an investigation that began when Barack Obama was president, were politically motivated. A deferred prosecution agreement, accompanied by a substantial fine, would provide both the U.S. and China with an honourable exit strategy from a dossier that has dogged both countries for too long now.

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If, as hoped, such a deal were to secure the release of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, it would bring an end to the cruel injustice they are experiencing – and extricate the Trudeau government from a situation it has shown neither the will nor the guts to face up to on its own.

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