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Former deputy prime minister John Manley has suggested a 'prisoner swap' between China and Canada.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada should swap Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for two Canadians detained in China in a “prisoner exchange,” says former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, who is a director of a Canadian telecommunications company that uses equipment from the Chinese multinational.

Referring to the Glienicke Bridge, which once separated West Berlin from East Germany, Mr. Manley said Canada should arrange a transfer with China just like Western allies did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“There is a bridge … outside Berlin where people used to be exchanged. That is where I would be going with this,” Mr. Manley told Canadian Global Affairs Institute vice-president Colin Robertson in an interview recently posted on the organization’s website.

Mr. Manley’s postpolitical career includes a directorship at Telus Communications Inc., which uses equipment from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. in a portion of its wireless network.

It is nearly one year since China locked up two Canadians in what was widely regarded as retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of Ms. Meng on a U.S. extradition request. Beijing has accused former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor of spying.

“I think the only way to see the two Michaels released in a timely fashion is to do a prisoner exchange, as crass as that may seem,” Mr. Manley told Mr. Robertson.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Mr. Manley’s idea would legitimize Beijing’s “hostage diplomacy" tactics.

“It effectively normalizes hostage-taking by China, something that either makes it impossible to arrest Chinese citizens, or means that we need to be even more clear in advising travelling Canadians about the risk of becoming a hostage in [China],” Mr. Mulroney said. “We could expect China to build on its success with hostage diplomacy, possibly using it to pressure Canada to hand over Uyghurs and Tibetans or dissident writers and scholars who have sought refuge in our country.”

U.S. authorities accuse Ms. Meng and other Huawei executives of lying to banks so that they would clear transactions with Iran through the United States despite U.S. sanctions. She is alleged to have told them Huawei sold its shares in a subsidiary, Skycom, that was doing business with Iran. U.S. authorities say the shares were sold to a company Huawei also controlled, and that one bank subsequently cleared more than US$100-million worth of transactions related to Skycom between 2010 and 2014.

Ms. Meng was detained at Vancouver International Airport on Dec. 1, 2018, and is awaiting an extradition hearing in January, 2020.

“I know this isn’t a popular thing in Ottawa these days, but, quite frankly, I think that arresting Madame Meng was a mistake,” Mr. Manley said.

He said he worries Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor could still languish in Chinese detention even if the U.S. or the Canadian legal system release Ms. Meng.

“What I fear most is … the United States enters into a trade agreement with China. And withdraws the extradition request. And Madame Meng is released immediately. We then have no leverage and they will make us wait,” he said.

Releasing Ms. Meng after her Canadian extradition hearing, Mr. Manley cautions, also might not lead to an immediate return of the two men.

China expert Charles Burton said a prisoner-exchange would set a “very dangerous precedent” for future extradition cases in Canada involving citizens of the People’s Republic of China, or PRC.

“It would also give tacit consent to the Chinese regime’s gross violations of the international norms of diplomacy and trade, and embolden the PRC government to subject Canada to more coercive outrages in future,” said Mr. Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who has been a diplomat in China.

“Moreover, such a prisoner exchange would be very badly received by the U.S. authorities and in addition damage Canada’s credibility with the allies who have been supporting us in seeking the just release of Kovrig and Spavor.”

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne declined to comment on Mr. Manley’s proposal. “Our government has been clear about our principles, our commitment to the rule of law, and our deep concern for our citizens who have been detained. We will continue to stand up for them as a government, as Canadians and as a liberal democracy,” press secretary Adam Austen said.

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