The showdown between Canada and China over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou has mostly been discussed in Canada in terms of the relationship of between the two countries. That makes sense, of course. The affair raises important domestic questions.
But the arrest of Ms. Meng in December and China’s subsequent reaction need also to be understood in the context of the Chinese government’s ambitions in the wider world. In many ways, this is not about Canada, or not only about Canada. It’s about Beijing’s determination to tilt the international order in its favour.
China’s decisions to detain two Canadians and subject them to conditions that are nothing less than torture, and to arbitrarily sentence to death a Canadian man serving a 15-year drug-smuggling sentence in a China prison, were intended as a harbinger of the future, and are being seen as such.
The regime wants other countries to know that they will pay a price if they cross Beijing. The message received has been somewhat different: This is how Beijing will behave as its influence and power increase.
The lesson to be taken from the arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and from the death sentence given to Robert Schellenberg, is plain: Countries that defy Beijing may face reprisals, including having their citizens detained and maltreated.
It is no longer possible for the citizen of a country that falls out with Beijing, and who plans to visit China, to rule out the possibility that he or she will be held at a Chinese airport for questioning, or taken into custody for six months of interrogation in a room with the lights left permanently on.
China’s retaliatory moves against essentially random Canadians are a violation of international norms and law. On Monday, more than 140 academics and former diplomats from around the world signed a joint letter calling for the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
This is telling. Where some might see only a dispute between Canada and China, others see the end of China’s willingness to seek common ground with the Western world.
The Communist Party of China has officially banned “erroneous Western thought" – things such as the rule of law and the independence of the courts that are defining values in Canada, the United States and much of Europe.
At the same time, China is the world’s fastest-growing economy and could be the biggest within a decade.
To increase its global influence, it has been aggressively investing in developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America in order to bring them into its orbit.
According to a report by Policy Horizons Canada, a federal think tank, trade between China and the developing world, especially in Asia, could one day challenge the European Union and the North American free-trade agreement as the world’s premier trading blocs, with China using its muscle to set rules on trade that harm its Western competitors.
The current two biggest world economies – the United States and the EU – are jurisdictions that rely on “erroneous Western thought” to ensure that companies are given a fair shake when they invest, and that citizens are protected from their governments through the rule of law and the independence of the courts.
Western companies that do business in China are well aware that they will not be treated fairly in that country’s courts, and that they can only operate on terms set by the Party. But they have been willing to tolerate this in exchange for access to the vast Chinese market.
China’s detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor serves notice that it has abandoned all pretense of playing by any rules other than the ones set by the Communist Party.
If and when China dominates trade in a region, the rules for foreign investors in that sphere may bear little resemblance to those that Canada and its trading allies hold dear. Trade and other disputes could well be settled in an arbitrary fashion, with little recourse, and with the outcome always tilted toward Beijing.
Countries could also find their citizens being used as pawns in trade or other disputes, or when Beijing believes they are enforcing sovereign laws or international treaties at its expense, as happened after Canada arrested Ms. Meng.
The Meng dispute has shown the world the true face of the regime that runs China. It was intended to cow countries into toeing China’s line. It may have the opposite effect.