Errol Mendes is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa. He led a 15-year Canadian-funded research project with Beijing University in the 1990s on international law and human rights.
Canada is in a painful vise grip between two warring superpowers. This was triggered by the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei and daughter of the founder of the tech giant, at the request of the United States. Canada, as a professed “rule-of-law" country, had little choice but to arrest Ms. Meng, given that it has an extradition treaty with the U.S.
The charges are serious: The U.S. accused Huawei and Ms. Meng of violating sanctions against Iran and engaging in serious bank fraud. China viewed the arrest as Canada meekly following the directions of the U.S. as part of its trade and containment war with the Middle Kingdom.
In order to show how it could stand up to both the U.S. and Canada, China turned to an ancient proverb: killing the chicken to scare the monkey. The idea is quite simple: Faced with a rebellious or unco-operative individual – the monkey – one need only torture and kill a chicken to show how brutal and serious you are. The monkey will fall in line.
Right now, China sees Canada as the chicken, and the torture comes in the form of China inflicting pain on Canada’s agricultural sector by blocking or restricting imports of canola, beef and pork. China has also shown its cruel disregard for human dignity by detaining two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been kept in conditions that are not far from torture, including 24-hour lighting and limited access by consular officials. Ms. Meng, meanwhile, for whom they are being held hostage, is allowed to remain in her Vancouver mansion. In addition, two Canadians have been sentenced to death for drug-related offences.
If China’s strategy is to pressure Canada to ask the U.S. to withdraw its extradition request, it does not seem to be working. Canada has stated that the rule of law is at stake, not just caving-in to a demanding superpower. Indeed, it was U.S. President Donald Trump who first raised the possibility of withdrawing the extradition request if it was part of a favourable trade deal with China. Canada finds itself in an extremely challenging position – caught between two superpowers, neither of which seem to be strong adherents to the international rule of law.
How can Canada avoid the fate of the chicken? There are several ways to fight back.
First, Canada should take China to the World Trade Organization. By making up reasons to block Canadian exports – “hazardous organisms” is what China used to justify the canola ban – China has proven it is not a reliable trading partner.
Second, Chinese corporations operating in Canada (and other countries) must be made to realize that if they are unable to follow national laws and processes without intervention from Beijing then their future in those countries will be limited. In addition, the taking of hostages in China as a way of aiding those companies must also be condemned by Canada in all possible global forums where China is keen to be seen as a counterweight to the U.S. This includes the Group of 20, whose leaders are meeting this week in Japan, and the United Nations.
Finally, Canada should demand much more action from the actual monkey, the United States. The chicken may have to exercise its own limited leverage with the monkey in seeking this co-operation, including threatening its final decision on implementing the new North American trade agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
This week’s ban of Canadian meat exports should be the last straw. Canada must play its strongest cards against China in order not to be relegated permanently to the role of chicken.