The crisis caused by the kidnapping and holding for ransom of two Canadians by the Chinese government reached a crescendo this week, with critics of the Trudeau government mounting a campaign to persuade Canadians that the only logical choice is to pay the ransom and give in to the demands of hostage-takers.
The ransom demanded by Beijing is the release of Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese telecom executive who was arrested in Vancouver in December of 2018 on an extradition request from the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice has charged Ms. Meng with bank fraud and wire fraud, and wants her to face trial in an American court.
The hostages are Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – “the two Michaels,” as they have come to be known.
They were grabbed by authorities in China in the days after Ms. Meng was arrested in Vancouver. They have since been held in conditions akin to torture, and were only formally charged (with espionage) earlier this month, a retaliatory move that came after a judge in Vancouver ruled against Ms. Meng’s attempt to have her extradition case thrown out.
This week, a group of prominent lawyers, former parliamentarians and diplomats wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau imploring him to allow the Justice Minister to use his legislated power to unilaterally end Ms. Meng’s extradition proceedings. Doing so, they argued, would save the lives of the two Michaels, and put Canada’s relationship with China back on track.
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau respectfully said he would not do that. He gave two reasons: Canada’s justice system must remain free of foreign and domestic political pressure; and Canada cannot signal to China and other counties that “all they have to do to get leverage over the Canadian government is randomly arrest a couple of Canadians.”
On balance, that’s the right answer. Mr. Trudeau and his government have been put in a terrible position by Beijing, one that Beijing made far worse this week when a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman made the hostage-taking explicit, saying the two Michaels would be freed if Ottawa dropped the case against Ms. Meng.
Until now, China declined to publicly link the cases, and only hinted at a connection. But what might look like a moment of honesty has instead deepened the crisis.
Where once Ottawa might have been able to consider ending Ms. Meng’s extradition case in the national interest, in the hopes that China would respond in kind, Beijing’s admission that her fate and that of the two Michaels are linked has made doing so a moral impossibility.
Beijing is behaving like a terrorist organization that kidnaps innocents in order to force a prisoner exchange. By doing so in relation to Ms. Meng, it is saying that Ottawa must break with its closest ally, the U.S., and abandon its international treaty obligations, if it ever wants to see Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor alive again.
That’s the essence of Beijing’s actions, stripped of all diplomatic nicety and intellectual posturing about the complications of managing relations with an aggressive superpower.
Worse still, Beijing feels empowered to admit that, yes, we kidnap the citizens of middle powers if we don’t approve of their foreign policy.
How can the Trudeau government respond other than to say no? It is a horribly painful truth to admit, but the truth nonetheless, that Canada’s national interest is bigger than the lives of two people, and its foreign policy cannot be their ransom.
As well, the real danger in giving in is not that it would expose Canadians to the risk of kidnapping by other countries; rather, it would expose the citizens of every other country to an increased risk of state kidnapping in China (pay attention, Australia).
As bad as it is, China’s admission that it has put a gun to the heads of the two Michaels is also an opportunity for Ottawa.
Mr. Trudeau should be frank about the fact that China has admitted it is engaged in an act that violates international laws, and use that to encourage our allies to ramp up pressure on Beijing.
The stakes are high. Every middle power needs to wake up and realize that Canada may well be the proving ground for a nascent Chinese foreign policy that uses borderline terrorist techniques to extract what it wants from countries that can’t match its size.