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President Joe Biden walks to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., March 16, 2021.

Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press

The Canadian government is counting on President Joe Biden’s proposed reset of U.S.-China relations to open the door for the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, according to senior federal officials.

In talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mr. Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris have shown great sympathy for the plight of the two Michaels, but they indicated the administration first must complete a review of U.S.-China relations before deciding how to handle the imprisoned Canadians, according to the two sources. The review is expected to take about four months, the Canadians were told.

The Americans signalled to the Prime Minister and top officials that they were willing to do all that is possible to win the release of the two Canadians once the review of China-U.S. relations is completed.

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The two men were arrested shortly after Canada detained Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request for bank fraud, which she denies. The Prime Minister has already said Canada would not stop the extradition process.

The federal sources are being kept confidential because they were not authorized to speak on these matters.

Trudeau talks a little tougher about China now that Biden’s got his back

The Canadian sources say they believe it is highly unlikely that the President would ask the Justice Department to drop the arrest warrant and extradition request against Ms. Meng. The U.S. could also drop the extradition but leave the indictment in place. That scenario is also unlikely, the officials said.

They also said there is strong possibility that the U.S. Justice Department could negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement with Huawei that would allow Ms. Meng to return home while the Chinese telecom would pay a hefty fine. Any agreement would require an admission of wrongdoing. The U.S. federal court in the Eastern District of New York would have to approve the agreement.

After a virtual meeting with Mr. Trudeau last month, the President vowed to work for the safe return of the two Michaels, saying “human beings are not bargaining chips.”

Vina Nadjibulla, the former spouse of Mr. Kovrig and a principal advocate in Canada for his release, said Mr. Biden’s comments were powerful and significant.

“It gives me and others a sense of hope that the U.S. will work closely with Canada to secure their freedom,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “What matters now is for our government to do everything possible to translate that public commitment that President Biden made into specific action.”

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"Please continue to hope and believe that you will be free one day." That's the messsage Vina Nadjibulla, Michael Kovrig's wife, wants him to hear after being in Chinese custody since December 2018. The Globe and Mail

Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig have been held in Chinese prisons since December, 2018, and face charges of spying, which Mr. Trudeau has called “trumped up.” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has characterized Beijing’s conduct as “hostage diplomacy.”

While Ms. Meng’s extradition trial in Vancouver drags on, officials in Ottawa privately acknowledge that the only way the two Michaels would be freed is if the Biden administration worked out a deal with Beijing.

Eric Lewis, a U.S. lawyer who specializes in international fraud and corruption cases, said the U.S. Department of Justice has the power to withdraw the extradition request and the arrest warrant. “It can move to dismiss the indictment, which a court would need to dismiss but almost inevitably does. Or it can stop trying to extradite but leave indictment in place, which would effectively prevent the defendant from coming to the U.S. as she would be arrested. Or they could negotiate an agreement with deferred prosecution and she could come to the U.S. and enter the plea and the disposition but court would need to approve it.”

In December, 2020, after the U.S. presidential election but before Mr. Biden was sworn in, negotiations between Ms. Meng’s lawyers and the Justice Department failed to reach an agreement on a deferred prosecution agreement.

However, the officials emphasized that even if Ms. Meng is allowed to return home as part of a U.S. settlement, there is little likelihood that the two Michaels would be immediately freed. The more likely scenario is that China would wait at least two months before deporting them, likely after a Chinese court has ruled on the espionage charges.

“I can’t speak to specific ways in which the U.S. could help. What matters to me is there is a strong understanding and commitment from the U.S. government to help resolve this, that there is an understanding that Canada is paying an unbelievably high price,” Ms. Nadjibulla said.

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The new Biden administration is seeking to enlist allies to counter an increasingly aggressive China and to champion democracy and human rights.

Huawei has long maintained Ms. Meng’s innocence but Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who has been closely following the case, said it’s his bet that Ms. Meng would be ready to admit wrongdoing as part of a resolution reached with the U.S. “Huawei is willing. It’s not the cheque size. It’s the words.”

He said it’s all about how a settlement is packaged. “An admission, but of what? Pay a fine, but no time in American jail. A change of status for Ms. Meng in Huawei: voluntary departure from the chief financial officer position?” he said. He said it will ultimately require “a lot of money and a bit of shame” for Huawei.

Last week, Hu Xijin, the editor of the Communist Party-run newspaper Global Times, tweeted that Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor would have a first trial “soon.” Chinese courts, which are controlled by the party, have a conviction rate of almost 100 per cent.

Mr. Kurland said Canada should hope a resolution to Ms. Meng’s arrest is reached before Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are sentenced in China. He predicts it will be harder to free them after that. “Everybody better keep their eye on the Chinese sentencing clock for the two Canadians.”

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said he is “not too optimistic” about a short-term resolution to the Meng-Michaels problem. He said he believes the Biden administration has too many other subjects to address with Beijing and it would only be put on the table if the Chinese made a big request of the U.S. that Washington can accommodate.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet in Anchorage, Alaska, Thursday with China’s Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party’s top decision-making body, and Wang Yi, the foreign minister.

Mr. Blinken has called the meeting an important opportunity to lay out in frank terms many concerns the U.S. has with Beijing’s actions.

“The meeting in Alaska is going to be an important indicator,” Ms. Nadjibulla said. “We have to remember that real lives are on the line and we have to do what we need to do to move the process forward.”

The two Michaels have been in Chinese prisons for 828 days in conditions where the lights are on 24/7. Recently, China granted consular access again to the two men.

“Consulate visits still remain our main window into finding out how he is doing,” Ms. Nadjibulla said about Mr. Kovrig. “The last consular was at the end of January and [at] that point Michael seemed healthy and his language is that he is enduring and doing everything he can do to stay focused and positive.”

Mr. Biden plans to hold a summit of democracies to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” On Friday the President met virtually with Australian, Indian and Japanese leaders making up an Indo-Pacific strategic partnership that seeks to counter Chinese expansionism. Canada is not a member.

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