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Canada's Ambassador to China Dominic Barton makes his way to a committee room to appear before the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The news that Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, spent most of the month of April in Washington holding secret talks with American officials on the subject of two Canadian men held hostage by China is a positive development. It also underlines the fact that their fates are largely out of the hands of Ottawa.

It has been more than 900 days since Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were seized by Chinese authorities on imaginary national security charges.

The abduction of the two Canadians in China was Beijing’s retaliation for the December, 2018, arrest at Vancouver Airport of Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecom executive, on an extradition request from the United States.

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Ms. Meng is the chief financial officer of Huawei, the telecom giant started by her father, Ren Zhengfei. Prosecutors in the U.S. allege that she lied to banks about Huawei’s relationship with a subsidiary in Iran in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions on that country.

Ms. Meng is facing criminal fraud charges that could carry a prison sentence in the U.S., but she currently lives in a luxury home in Vancouver as her extradition case slowly works its way through our courts.

The Trudeau government has resisted pressure from Beijing to short-circuit the extradition process, saying that Canada’s legal system must be free from political influence.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, meanwhile, are prisoners of a justice system that is merely an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. They have been held in solitary confinement, denied consular access and subjected to repeated interrogations. In March, they were briefly put on display in show trials that foreign diplomats and journalists were not allowed to attend, and for which no verdict has been announced.

Freeing the two Michaels without giving in to Beijing’s extortion is a riddle wrapped inside a puzzle. Ottawa can’t let China use kidnappings to influence this country’s foreign relations and justice system. Doing so would set a terrible precedent, while also endangering the citizens of other small and middle powers that Beijing wants to bully.

But for the sake of two Canadian citizens, Ottawa is understandably loath to let Ms. Meng’s extradition case simply run its course. That could take years, and could consign the two Michaels to life in a Chinese prison.

Beijing wants something that Canada – out of respect for the rule of law, national self-interest and our vital relationship with the U.S. – is unable to provide. It’s a standoff that Ottawa cannot unlock by itself.

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Which is why Mr. Barton’s trip to Washington in April represents the best hope the two men have of seeing their loved ones again. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden needs to take their well-being seriously. Even more than that, however, the U.S. has to consider its own national interest – and whether a Cold War with China is best waged through the U.S. justice system.

One possible resolution for the Meng case is a plea agreement the U.S. Justice Department reportedly floated late last year, but which apparently went nowhere. Mr. Barton is said to be trying to revive the deal or get a new one, which would let Huawei and Ms. Meng admit to some level of wrongdoing, pay a fine and put the affair to bed.

That would be the best way out of this mess, and Canada should continue to push for it.

At this point, none of the states involved in the Meng case can possibly want the status quo to continue. The U.S. and Canada have much bigger issues to worry about right now: Trade, the economy, security and, above all, how the West can do business with China without selling out its values and its interests.

As well, the U.S. is increasingly eager to play hardball with China on a host of other issues, and Canada and the rest of the democratic world have every reason to stand side by side with it. The China challenge is real, but the Meng case, a leftover from the previous administration, is a distraction from the bigger picture.

As for the two Michaels, the bottom line is that their fates are in the hands of China, and China is watching for the next move from the U.S. They are on the cusp of either a prolonged imprisonment, or the beginning of the end of their nightmare.

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