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Politics Canada certainly can’t count on Trump bargaining for the release of two Canadians imprisoned in China

Finally, some useful advice from Beijing’s official spokesperson, Geng Shuang, who told Canada not to be so naive.

In one sense, it was just the latest in a series of nyah-nyah taunts aimed at dissing the Canadian effort to have allies express support for Canada in its dispute with China. In January, another Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Canada’s allies “could be counted on 10 fingers” – which suggests Beijing is actually finding it annoying.

So no one should accept the main thrust of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s self-serving propaganda message – which is that Canada should stop talking to other countries and cave to Beijing’s demands.

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But coming as it does in a week when there has been a lot of focus on whether U.S. President Donald Trump raised the plight of two detained Canadians with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it’s worth taking part of Mr. Geng’s warning to heart. Canada certainly can’t count on Mr. Trump bargaining for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

There’s also no point pretending that Canada can simply apply some pressure tactic to scare the bully off. The depressing reality is that Canada is now in the diplomatic equivalent of a public-relations war, with a regime not known for its delicate sensibilities.

So it is absolutely worthwhile for Canada to keep telling the rest of the world what happened: Canadian authorities arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, wanted on U.S. criminal charges, and in retaliation, Beijing locked up Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, as hostages. Just this week, we learned that Chinese authorities confiscated Mr. Kovrig’s reading glasses, as if to prove that even the biggest and most bureaucratic police state can still be cruel in petty ways.

But there’s no reason to expect Mr. Trump to solve the problem.

The U.S. President had promised to raise the issue in talks with Mr. Xi at the G20 summit in Osaka last weekend, and, although the White House refused to confirm afterward that he had, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted that he was “confident” that the exchange had taken place. On Wednesday, a Canadian official told The Globe and Mail that the Trump administration had informed Ottawa that the President had raised it in a substantive way.

That’s good. It brings the issue directly to China’s top leader at a time when Chinese officials have been refusing Canadian calls. Mr. Xi was said to be personally behind the policy of punishing Canada for arresting Ms. Meng. And he has reason to listen to Mr. Trump since China and the U.S. are in talks to settle a high-stakes trade war.

But Mr. Trump can’t be counted on to bargain for two Canadians. He is a famously inconstant ally, who has made looking out for number one a political virtue. He has made the trade war with China his biggest political cause. If he is bargaining with Mr. Xi, it’s for concessions for the U.S. Who really thinks he’d give up any part of his own political win for two Canadians?

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That doesn’t mean that allies are only good for “lip service,” as Mr. Geng, the Chinese spokesperson, put it. This a PR war, and the more that is said around the world, the better. It’s hard to embarrass Beijing, but a reputation as a ruthless bully can damage its diplomacy and its companies – such as Huawei.

Up to now, Mr. Trudeau’s government has clinged to hope there is a way to de-escalate the dispute, and still hopes that his brief exchanges with Mr. Xi at the G20 summit might lead to a thaw.

But soon, the government is going to have to commit to the PR war. It can’t send Mary Ng, the Minister for Small Business and Export Promotion, to eat ice cream in Beijing, as she did this week, because it sends the message that this dispute is no big deal. It should prepare to challenge Chinese trade retaliation against Canadian canola and meat at the World Trade Organization.

Ottawa, and Canadians, too, should be diligent in rejecting the false equivalency between Ms. Meng, on the one hand, and Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, on the other. The Huawei executive was arrested on U.S. charges, and can fight not only her extradition, but the charges, in front of credible judges. Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are bystanders who face courts with 99-per-cent conviction rates. And it’s worth spreading the word to mobile-phone customers that the Chinese state took revenge for the arrest of a Huawei executive by throwing two Canadians in jail.

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