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Politics Australia joins outcry over detention of Canadians in China, but stops short of calling for their release

In this Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, file photo, Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters.

Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press

Australia has added its voice to the growing chorus of international criticism over the detention of two Canadians in China after the arrest in Vancouver of a Huawei executive, but stopped short of calling for their immediate release.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia is “concerned” about the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, according to statements published by Australian news outlets Sunday. The men were arrested by Chinese authorities on Dec. 10, just days after China promised retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer.

"We would be very concerned if these cases were related to legal proceedings currently under way in Canada involving a Chinese citizen, Ms. Meng Wanzhou,” Ms. Payne said .

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“The Australian government has conveyed this position to Chinese counterparts and we have been in regular contact with Canadian officials.”

Australia joins other Canadian allies − the United States, Britain, the European Union and France – in publicly backing Canada.

But Ms. Payne did not call for the immediate release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, despite recent pressure from more than 40 international-affairs experts in Australia to do so. The term “immediate release” is considered fairly blunt diplomatic language, reserved for when one country believes another state has absolutely no grounds to arrest its citizens.

“As Australian scholars and analysts, we are deeply concerned about the recent detentions of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in the People’s Republic of China," read an open letter to Ms. Payne from the experts. "We ask the Australian government without further delay to support Canada’s call for the immediate release of these two detainees.”

The U.S. State Department has joined Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in calling for the immediate release of Mr. Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who now works as an analyst for the International Crisis Group, and Mr. Spavor, a Canadian entrepreneur. Responding to Australia’s statement Monday, Ms. Freeland’s office said Canada appreciates the support it has received from its allies.

“As we have said before, we are deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of two Canadians and call for their immediate release," Adam Austen, Ms. Freeland’s press secretary, said in an e-mail. "Canada continues to express its appreciation to those who have spoken in support of these detained individuals and the rule of law,”

Mr. Austen did not say if the government would like Australia to go further in its condemnation of China by calling for the release of the Canadians. Both men were arrested on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security" of China.

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Australia has much closer trade ties to China than any other country that has expressed support for Canada and the detained Canadians, putting it at greater economic risk if it gets into a diplomatic spat with the economic giant. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, according to Australia’s foreign-ministry website.

However, Australia has not shied away from expressing its national-security concerns about Chinese telecom giant Huawei, blocking it from supplying equipment to their 5G wireless network infrastructure. The technology offers the prospect of much faster download speeds and is meant to support a vast expansion of telecom networks to connect self-driving cars, factory robots, medical devices and power plants.

Australia, along with Canada, the United States, Britain and New Zealand, are members of the Five Eyes intelligence network. Two other members of the alliance have also taken measures to block Huawei: The U.S.-blacklisted Huawei 5G technology and New Zealand blocked the first request from one of its wireless carriers to install the company’s equipment. Britain has yet to make a decision on Huawei.

Meanwhile, Canada is conducting a cybersecurity review of Huawei and its 5G technology. The U.S. is leading a global campaign to persuade allies, including Canada, to bar Huawei from 5G networks on grounds that Beijing could order the telecom to tap the hardware it makes to spy on or disable communications networks.

Canada’s relationship with China and Huawei was further complicated on Dec. 1, when Ms. Meng, whose father is Huawei’s founder, was arrested in Vancouver in response to a request from the U.S. under an extradition treaty. She is accused of misleading multinational banks about Huawei’s control of a company operating in Iran, putting the banks at risk of violating U.S. sanctions and incurring penalties, according to court documents.

Ms. Meng is out on bail awaiting an extradition hearing and the Chinese have accused Canadian authorities of “kidnapping” her at the behest of the U.S. government.

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With reports from Steven Chase and Robert Fife

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